“We have strict statutes and most biting laws”

Measure for Measure

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


I’d like to begin this post with a comment/question posted by one our most faithful readers, Mahood:

“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?!”

I don’t think he is – Shakespeare was, as it is important for us to keep in mind, despite his total timelessness, very much a product of his times.  And he had to be only too aware of the fate that so many of his contemporaries had met, and what he could face himself if he wasn’t on his guard at all times.

Which leads to this:  Reading Shakespeare’s plays, do we really have any idea of his religious views?  His political views?  His views on anything really?  Even in the Sonnets – is that really him?  Were they just an exercise in writing?  (I doubt that personally, but there’s really no evidence on way or another.)

Bloom points out “We cannot know, by reading Shakespeare and seeing him played, whether he had any extrapoetic beliefs or disbeliefs. G.K. Chesterton, a wonderful literary critic, insisted that Shakespeare was a Catholic dramatist, and that Hamlet was more orthodox than skeptical.  Both assertions seem to me quite unlikely, yet I do not know, and Chesterton did not know either. Christopher Marlowe had his ambiguities and Ben Jonson his ambivalences, but sometimes we can hazard surmises as to their personal stances. By reading Shakespeare, I can gather that he did not like lawyers, preferred drinking to eating, and evidently lusted after both genders.  But I certainly do not have a clue as to whether he favored Protestantism or Catholicism or neither, and I do knot know whether he believed or disbelieved in God or in resurrection. His politics, like his religion, evades me, but I think he was too wary to have any.  He sensibly was afraid of mobs and uprisings, yet he was afraid of authority also. He aspired after gentility, rued having been an actor, and might seen to have valued The Rape of Lucrece over King Lear, a judgment in which he remains outrageously unique (except, perhaps, for Tolstoy.)”

Now was this intentional on Shakespeare’s part?  Was it just who he was an artist?  Again…we just don’t know.

To conclude on this theme, this, the last published story of the great Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges.  The final paragraph of this very short short story is especially moving:

Borges on Shakespeare

Everything and Nothing

THERE was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.

For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Back to Act One of Measure for Measure, from Tanner:

Measure_final1“Interestingly, and perhaps understandably – the prospect of a few drinks at Mistress Overdone’s is surely more appealing than the idea of arguing forensics with Angelo – some major critics have shown themselves disinclined to be censorious about scenes involving the denizens of the brothel world. Dr. Johnson found them ‘very natural and pleasing,’ which could make you wonder how he spent his evenings in London, if we didn’t know better.  [MY NOTE:  He probably took notes from Boswell.]  Walter Pater is even more enthusiastic. ‘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 live which to some may seem to touch the verge of wantonness. Touch the verge! One applauds the tolerance, but perhaps has to deprecate the idealizing – some of the figures are amiable enough, and they certainly provide the only comedy in the play; but they are meant, surely to be seen as emissaries from a pretty foul and degraded world. These critics, and many others, are in part responding to the telling poetry Lucio uses to plead the case of Claudio and Juliet to icemaiden Isabella:

Your brother and his lover have embraced;

As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time

That from the seedness the bare fallow brings

To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb

Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry.

Put like that (no coarse brothel squalor in these lines – we are out in the fields we never see, and I doubt Lucio’s competence in husbandry) it seems like the most natural thing in the world. Which of course it is – one more example of the ongoing miracle of nature’s bounty. And the death sentence passed on Claudio is an absurdity as well as an atrocity. Pompey lives by being a bawd:

Escalus: Is it a lawful trade?

Pompey: If the law would allow it, sir.

Escalus: But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall not be allowed in Vienna.

Pompey: Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?

Escalus: No, Pompey.

Pompey: Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to’t, then.

(II, 1, 226-33)

Of course they will. We scarcely need a play by Shakespeare to remind us that you – they – cannot stamp out legally unsanctioned sexual behavior, nor decree it away. Pompey makes a sharper point. It would be legal if the legitimating authorities legalized it – the law is, at bottom, as tautologous as that. It certainly cannot invoke the authority of nature, since nature not only allows unrestricted sexuality, it seems positively to demand it. The law can either invoke the will of God; or point to the requirements of civic order and decency; or simply rule by fiat, fear, and force. These are complex and perennial matters how and to what extent a society controls the sexuality of its members is perhaps its most abiding problem and concern (even today, different societies have different ideas about what to do about the world’s oldest profession – legalize it? tolerate it? wink at it? ghetto-ize it? try to eradicate it? But whatever they decide, you may be sure people ‘will to’t.’)

As he does so often, Shakespeare, in this play, has taken familiar tales and themes and synthesized them in a completely original way, giving them a twist in the process. There are three such discernible in this play, usually referred to (following Arden editor J.W. Lever) as the story of the Corrupt Magistrate (also called ‘The Monstrous Ransom’ by Mary Lascelles); the legend of the Disguised Ruler; and the tale of the Substituted Bedmate. The first story turns on the abuse of authority and power and must be as old as Authority itself. A generic version would have a woman pleading to a local authority for the life of her husband, under sentence of death for murder. The authority promises to release the husband if the wife will sleep with him. She does; but he executes the husband anyway. The wife appeals to the great ruler of the land, and the Corrupt authority it ordered to marry the wronged wife (to make her respectable, and is then executed. An eye for an eye – very satisfying. In his Hecatommithi (1565), Cinthio, offering a more romantic version, made certain changes to the plot, which were adopted by Shakespeare. The husband and wife become brother and sister; the brother’s original crime was not murder but seduction of a virgin; the brother is not executed after all; and the sister pleads for and obtains mercy for the corrupt magistrate who is now her husband.  Much happier all around. According to Lever, ‘The end of the story was explicitly designed to show the courtesy, magnanimity, and justice of the Emperor Maximian.’ This has particular contemporary relevance for Shakespeare’s play, written as it was the year after James I came to the throne (1603) – of which, more later. A more recent source for Shakespeare was George Whetstone’s two-part play, Promos and Cassandra (1578). These two leading figures, greatly altered, mutate into Angelo and Isabella. Their two great interviews occur at about the same stages in both plays, and for two Acts, Shakespeare follows Whetstone’s structure and scene sequence quite closely. He also takes over some minor characters, characteristically altered and individualized – though he added Elbow and Froth, Abhorson and the crucial Barandine, Lucio, and Mariana, and effectively reinvents the great ruler, since, as Bullough points out, ‘in no other version of the tale is the overlord given the same prominent part.’ Of course, Shakespeare’s masterstroke, which changes everything, is to make the heroine a novitiate nun, and to have her refuse to sacrifice her chastity to save the life of her brother.

The stories of monarchs moving among their people in disguise are likewise numerous and ancient. The Roman Emperor Alexander Severus was famous for it: here is Sir Thomas Elyot writing about Severus in The Image of Governance (1541) – a title with obvious relevance for Shakespeare’s play.

[he] used many tymes to disguise hym selfe in dyvers straunge facions….and woulde one day haunte one parte of the cite, an other day an other parte…to see the state of the people, with the industrie or negligence of theym that were officers.

The figure of the Disguised Ruler had become popular on the contemporary stage: in Shakespeare’s play he becomes the crucial mediating, moderating and manipulating figure. The Substituted Bedmate – the bed trick – was an even more familiar and popular motive, which Shakespeare has used before, not least in All’s Well That Ends Well. But by brining Mariana, who is sort of Angelo’s fiancée, to be the substitute; and by having Isabella, who is almost a nun, agree to the trick, Shakespeare opens up all sorts of legal, moral, and spiritual issues.  As, of course, does the whole play.

One general point should be made about the genre of this strange play.  Just at this time, the emergent genre of ‘Mongrell tragicomedy’ (as Sidney called it), was being ‘theorized’ by one Guarini in his Compendio della Poesia Tragicomica (1601). I quote Lever’s summary of Guarini’s defense of the ‘mongrel, ‘The form was defined as a close blend or fusion of seeming disparates; taking from tragedy ‘its great characters, but not its great action; a likely story, but not a true one…delight, not sadness; danger, not death’; and from comedy ‘laughter that was not dissolute, modest attractions, a well-tied knot, a happy reversal, and, above all, the comic order of things.’ Shakespeare’s play hardly meets all these requirements, even though it does end with the marriages, pardons, and reconciliations, and apparently harmonizations of ‘the comic order of things’ – even Lucio, who looks set to act as the usual requisite scapegoat excluded from the final ensemble, is forgiven. So all seems well. But what laughter there is is resolutely ‘dissolute’; the arranged marriages have not been sought and pursued by the couples involved – there is no genuine love (as opposed to lust) in this play – but are imposed by the Duke…The questions raised by the play remain unanswered – are perhaps unanswerable. A.P. Rossiter’s redefinition of Tragicomedy comes nearer the mark. ‘Tragicomedy is an art of inversion, deflation, and paradox. Its subject is tragicomic man; and my repetition is not tautology, because genuine tragicomedy is marked by telling generalizations about the subject, man, of a seriousness which is unexpected on comedy and may seem incongruous with it.’ He takes up a term first used by F.S. Boas in 1896, when he described Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Hamlet as ‘problem plays, ‘we are made to feel the pain – of the distressing, disintegrating possibilities of human meanness (ignobility and treachery, craft and selfishness).’ Such plays, he suggests, are marked by ‘shiftingness. All the firm points of view or points d’appui fail one,’ and human experience ‘seems only describable in terms of paradox.’

The play opens with a ruler announcing his imminent ‘absence.’ It is all rather stealthy – he wants to slip away silently and secretly; unnoticed and unaccompanied. He gives absolutely no reason or explanation for this unducal move. It is not how rulers were expected to behave – it is as if he is abdicating from the responsibilities of his regal role, which for Elizabethans would serve as a dire presage of civil disorder to come in his ‘absence,’ an opening to be taken up again in King Lear which can be seen as another experiment in civil disorder ensuant on the self-removal of the keystone of the state. The Duke will return in a very public way with full pomp and ceremony – we hear him ordering trumpets at the city gates. The experiment – or whatever it was – is over, and he will appear as a true Duke again.

His opening speech is also strange. The first line has a fine, royal ring to it:

Of government the properties to unfold…

— and we feel we are in for another eloquent speech like the one given by Ulysses on ‘degree’ (Troilus and Cressida), this time on the ‘properties of government,’ an always urgent concern for the Elizabethans. But no – that won’t be necessary, he says to Escalus, you know all about that already. He seems to promise one thing, then fails to deliver, or goes off in another direction. This is how he is going to behave, apparently. Near the end, an increasingly bewildered Escalus complain: ‘Every letter he hath writ hath disvouched other’ (IV, iv, i). It is an ungainly negative – rather as if one should say dis-confirm, dis-call, un-speak – and Shakespeare has invented it for this play. Again we can see the rightness of the word – this is to be a disvouching Duke; it is one of the seemingly ungainly ways in which he works. But to return to that opening line: the coming play will ‘unfold’ the properties of government – the properties; and the difficulties, the obligations, the temptations, the abuses, the failures – all the un-properties too. ‘Unfold’ is a crucial word in this play, and has become very important for Shakespeare. Near the end, when Isabella thinks her appeal to the Duke has been incredulously denied, she cries out:

Then, O you blessed ministers above,

Keep me in patience, and with ripened time

Unfold the evil which is here wrapped up

In countenance.

(V, I, 115-19)

She is anticipating Cordelia in King Lear; and, indeed, how wrapped-up evil does, finally, gets ‘unfolded,’ may be said to the main concern of Shakespeare’s tragedies. It is certainly the theme of the second half of this play – and a tricky and messy business it turns out to be. Not for the first time, Shakespeare has given us a clear pointer into his play in the first line.

The Duke’s next speech is to Angelo, and the word recurs:


There is a kind of character in thy life,

That to th’observer doth thy history

Fully unfold.


The Provincial, Cardiff: Arwel Gruffydd in Measure for Measure

‘Character’ is to be another crucial word in the play. It was coming to have something f our meaning – the qualities that make up a person, say. But the stronger meaning was of a distinctive mark, an inscription, a graphic symbol (hence handwriting), an engraving (coming, indeed, from the Greek word for the instrument used for marking, scratching). You can read Angelo from the outside – the marks reveal the man. Dramatic irony of course – it will take a great deal to ‘fully unfold’ Angelo. Some writing is reliably legible. In the very next scene Claudio tells Lucio:

The stealth of our most mutual entertainment

With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

She is manifestly pregnant, which is a true indication of sexual coupling. When the disguised duke wants to persuade the uncertain Provost to follow his plan, he shows him ‘the hand and seal of the Duke,’ adding ‘You know the character’ (IV, ii, 195-6). The Provost hesitates no longer. However, when the returning Duke greets Angelo thus:

O, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it

To lock it in the wards of covert bosom,

When it deserves, with characters of brass,

A forted residence ‘gainst the tooth of time

And razure of oblivion…

(V, I, 9-13)

he is engaging in deliberate, penetrative irony. Isabella is of course right to denounce the misleading appearance of Angelo:

     even so may Angelo

In all his dressings, caracts [characters, distinctive badges], titles,


Be an arch-villain.

(V, I, 55-7)

As in other plays, but here with unusually excoriating power, Shakespeare is engaging that central problem of ‘seeming’ – what signs, which ‘characters,’ can you trust? The Duke’s last line before disappearing is:

     Hence shall we see,

If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

It is the only time Shakespeare used that particular cognate of the word.

To return to the Duke’s first speech to Angelo. He continues with an important exhortation.

     Thyself and thy belongings

Are not thine own so proper as to waste

Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.

Heaven doeth with us as we with torches do,

Not light them for themselves, for if our virtues

Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike

As if we had them not.

He is drawing on the Bible, of course:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick that they which enter in may see the light…

(Luke 8:16)

and the episode with the woman who has an ‘issue’ of blood:

And Jesus said, Somebody hath touched me, for I perceive that virtue is gone out of me.

(Luke 8:46)

The injunction is, effectively, for Angelo to give up all that isolated study and fasting and put his private virtues to public use. But the words could be self-admonitory – ‘it’s about time I emerged from ‘the life removed’ and did something’ (as he is, rather rumly, about to) and they could be addressed proleptically to the nunnery-seeking Isabella, who elevates her own chastity over her brother’s life. ‘I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and un breathed, that never sallies out and see s her adversary’ – Milton’s words could almost have Isabella in mind (I think Jocelyn Powell first noted this). In Isabella’s case, we might add the line from Langland – ‘Chastity without charity is chained in hell.’ As I suggested, there are odd psychic similarities in the three main players. In their different ways, they do step out from ‘the life removed’; and we see what, variously, goes forth from them.

Two scenes later the Duke is in a monastery…explaining to Friar Thomas why he is disappearing, and handing over his ‘absolute power’ to Angelo. Presumably because of his preference for ‘the live removed,’ he has allowed the ‘strict statutes and most biting laws’ of the city to slip, so that now:

Liberty plucks Justice by the nose;

The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart

Goes all decorum…

— the world upside down. Whatever else this means, it indicates that he has been responsible for some sort of dereliction of duty and neglect of good ‘government.’ The play shows what he tries to do about it. Here is his plan. Install Angelo in his, the Duke’s office:

     And to behold his sway,

I will, as ‘twere a brother of your order,

Visit both prince and people. Therefore, I prithee,

Supply me with the habit and instruct me

How I may formally in person bear

Like a new friar.


John Cullum and Carson Elrod as a Viennese lord and a pimp in “Measure for Measure.” The production is running in repertory with “All’s Well That Ends Well,”

At a stroke, Shakespeare opens another dimension to his play. As Duke, Vincentio represents the acme of temporal power; then, ‘in disguising the Duke as Friar Shakespeare intends to raise questions of spiritual responsibility inherent in the course of temporal power.’ (Powell). The King was, of course, head of the Church in England, so this image of the composite, dual nature of authority – the Duke – Friar – would, again, have carried a contemporary relevance. But this dual figure also allows Shakespeare to address Renaissance theories of the law and government (the appropriate administering of Vienna), and to draw on the teaching of the church and the sayings of the Bible (matters concerning repentance, forgiveness, charity, mercy) – crimes, and sins; the control of man as body; the salvation of man as soul. And what is it for a mere, mortal man to have ‘authority’ over other men? Shakespeare has hardly gone as deep as this before now.

When the cat’s away…and when the Duke’s away (or living the ‘life removed’), the rats seem to take over the city.

    Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.

Thus Claudio, on his way to prison, sentenced to death, under Angelo’s new dispensation, for fornication. It is a powerful image. Whether the ‘thirsty evil’ is ‘too much liberty’ or simply lechery, the transposition of the epithet makes it seem as if the evil is drinking the rats. ‘Bane’ is poison, and is presumably the arsenic put down to kill rats – it induces thirst and when the rats drink to slake that thirst, they die. The greedy at tempt to satisfy our insatiable appetites inevitably proves mortal. And the appetite in this play is sexual – lust is everywhere on the loose. Immediately after the Duke’s initial departure, the brothel people – customers and providers – are on the scene. Whenever these people are present they bring with them a certain air of rank vitality, which certainly seems preferable to the stunning hypocrisy of Angelo. But it should not be romanticized. Sex is degraded into crude lechery (‘groping for trouts in a peculiar river,’ ‘filling a bottle with a tundish funnel,’ ), and is everywhere associated with disease, disfigurement, treatment for syphilis – rotting, stinking. We can all respond to the foul, bawdy talk since we all have a component of animal sexuality, while fewer of us are pathological puritans. But the vitality is verminous, and points to beastliness and the disorder of a completely non-moral world. Sex can, of course, lead to ‘blossoming’ and ‘teeming foison,’ as invoked in Lucio’s entirely out of character and – in this play – dissonant bit of pastoralizing to Isabella (even he won’t talk dirty to ‘a thing enskied and sainted,’); but hardened vice is something else – a thirsty evil – and the harvest is death. It is with a characteristically deft touch that Shakespeare has Pompey invited to become an executioner’s assistant in prison. Abhorson, the resident professional executioner, finds the idea insulting to his trade: ‘A bawd, sir? Fie upon him! He will discredit our mystery.’ But the Provost’s reply is definitive: ‘Go to, sir; you weigh equally; a feather will turn the scale.’ (IV, ii, 28-31).  There’s nothing to choose between them – in their different ways they both dispense death.”


Our next reading:  Measure for Measure, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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