“Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”

Measure for Measure

Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


measure-5_07Act Two:  The practical problems of Angelo’s puritanical clampdown are exposed when the doltish constable Elbow attempts to have Pompey and Froth tried for corrupting his wife. Isabella is then brought before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Initially, the deputy is unmoved by her arguments, but gradually becomes touched by her virtue and courage, but lust begins to take hold of him, and when they meet again he declares that he will save Claudio’s life on one condition – that she sleeps with him.  She is horrified (perhaps overly so?) and threatens to tell everyone, but soon realizes (like many a female victim) that she will not be believed. Meanwhile, at the prison, the Duke reappears in disguise and lectures a penitent Juliet on her “sinfulness.”


At least the “departed” Vincentio no longer has to deal with the real business of government:  his deputy, Angelo, in the very first scene of Act Two is confronted with the gravest threat imaginable to his new regime – people themselves.  Despite his insistence to Escalus that “we must not make a scarecrow of the law,” Angelo has not considered officials like Constable Elbow, who somehow manages to make the task of making the law look ridiculous into a full-time occupation.  Elbow has arrested the pimp Pompey on the basis that Pompey has done something to Elbow’s wife (exactly what Pompey has done Elbow never quite gets around to explaining), and the comic routine between the two – Elbow’s nonstop malapropisms versus Pompey’s rambling answers – lasts the rest of the scene.  Angelo manages to survive only a few minutes before storming off, leaving Escalus to deal with the mess. When Escalus demands, “What do you think of the trade [prostitution], Pompey? 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.

In other words, until such time as there is no call for sex (because Escalus and his colleagues would “geld and spay,” or sterilize Vienna’s young people), illicit sexual activity will, naturally, thrive. The comedy here is double-edged – though Pompey’s interpretation of “lawful” would not stand up in court, it still suggests the futility of banning something which, however morally repugnant, is a constant of human nature – Pompey’s “trade” is, after all, the oldest trade there is. And although these issues are still argued about by today’s lawmakers (GOP – I’m talking to you!), they would have had a special resonance for Jacobean audiences visiting a theater located in Southwark, part of the so-called “liberties” (or red-light zones), outside the city’s jurisdiction.  Prostitution thrived outside the Globe’s doors (as well as inside it’s doors if some things I’ve read are to be believed), and the playwright’s Vienna is remarkably similar to the London he knew oh so well.

Early audiences would also have felt sympathy for another victim of Angelo’s “new moral order” – Claudio.  He is arrested merely for sleeping with his fiancée, Juliet, before they are officially married – technically fornication to be sure, but a common offence in modern England, and one that Shakespeare, according to legend knew only to well (when he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, she was several months pregnant.)  To make matters even more complicated, Claudio claims that “upon a true contract,/I got possession of Julietta’s bed” (1, ii, 133-4), in effect they are engaged – and in this era that was often interpreted as being as serious a commitment as marriage itself.  And yet he faces the death penalty.

Isabella’s predicament, on the other hand, while different, is no less morally difficult.  Dragged from the convent in which she was about to become a nun, she has the uneviable task of begging for a brother whose “vice” (as she admits to Angelo) she “abhors.” Unlike Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Isabella – on the point of cutting herself from all male company for good – has no masculine disguise behind which to hide.  Indeed, it is her womanliness that Claudio is relying upon (or using) (“in her youth,” he remarked, “There is a prone and speechless dialect/Such as move men.” (1,ii,170-2). Those “gifts” are undeniable; arguing on front of Angelo that “it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant,” she draws fully on the strength of Christian rhetoric make her case:

Merciful heaven,

Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt

Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak

Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,

Dressed in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep, who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Although Isabella’s words are not always easy to untangle (she seems to picture apish, “proud man” laughing at sins that make angels “weep,” but also these angels laughing themselves to death at our weakness), their argument – that “merciful heaven” should be reflected here on earth – is impossible to misunderstand.”


From Bloom:

RSC, 1950

RSC, 1950

“It is one of Shakespeare’s most effective outrages that Isabella is his most sexually provocative female character, far more seductive even than Cleopatra, the professional seductress. Lucio, the flaneur or ‘fantastic,’ testifies to the perverse power of her innocence, which reminds the audience perpetually that a notice nun, in their vocabulary, is a novice whore, and a nunnery a synonym for a leaping house. Angelo and the Duke, in uncanny association, alike are moved to sublime lust by Isabella’s please. Angelo when she petitions him, and the Duke when he watches, as false friar, the scene of high sexual hysteria in which Isabella and Claudio clash as to the price of her virtue.  It is difficult to decide who is more antipathetic, Angelo or Duke Vincentio, but males in the audience are likely to echo Angelo’s ‘She speaks, and ‘tis such sense/That my sense breeds with hit.’ Empson, reading ‘sense’ as both rationality and sensuality, said that ‘the real irony…is that her coldness, even her rationality, is what has excited him.’ Perhaps, but her holiness excites him more, and the pleasures of profanation are his deepest desire. What, to a repressed sadomasochist, could be more moving than Isabella’s offer to bribe him:

     with true prayers

That shall be up at heaven and enter there

Ere sunrise: prayers from preserved souls,

From fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate

To nothing temporal.


To dedicate Isabella’s wholly temporal gratification of his lust is Angelo’s inevitable response:

Never could the strumpet

With all her double vigour, art and nature,

Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid

Subdues me quite.

One feels that Angelo’s heaven would be a nunnery, where he might serve as visiting (and punishing) father-confessor, and that one hears the man for the first time when he plainly (and zestfully) cries out his ultimatum to the sensually maddening novice nun:

     I have begun,

And now I give my sensual race the rein:

Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;

Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes

That banish what they sue for. Redeem thy brother

By yielding up thy body to my will,;

Or else he must not only the die death,

But thy unkindness shall his death draw out

To ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,

Or, by the affection that now guides me most,

I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,

Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

The 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. We need not doubt that, at least at this point, the infatuated Angelo would be willing to substitute torturing the brother for ravishing the sister. That, too, would be measure for measure, and outraged virtue (Angelo’s) would be appeased! Again the Grand Marquis de Sade could match Shakespeare neither in psychic conception nor in eloquence of execution. Sade’s fusion of political authority, spiritual dominance, and sexual torture is anticipated by Angelo, whose name is no more ironic than his delegated office or his mission to stamp out fornication and bastardy.”


From Tanner:

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

“The first two scene of Act II show the result of the Duke’s ‘absence’ (in a sense, he has absented himself from office for years). The subtle balancings, adjustments, temperings, reparations and restitutions of the law as it should be administered, have collapsed into the stark alternatives of chaos and tyranny. In the first scene, the under-deputy Escalus, who clearly shares what we are to believe was the Duke’s habitually lax tolerance, tries to make some sense out of constable Elbow’s malapropisms (he is bringing in the denizens of a ‘naughty house’ whom he refers to as ‘notorious benefactors.,’ and Pompey Bum’s weirdly inconsequential ramblings (Angelo won’t hear him out – ‘This will last out a night in Russia/When nights are longest there,’ – and leaves Escalus to pass sentence.) It becomes a parody of what should be the properly conducted arguments for the prosecution and defence in a decent court of law. Ethics are dissolved – logic and relevance nowhere to be found. It is comical enough, but if this is ‘law’ in Vienna, then the law indeed is an ass, or as Angelo would say, ‘a scarecrow.’ Escalus simply gets lost – ‘Which is wiser here, Justice or Iniquity?,’ and ends muddle-headedly ordering Pompey to go on just as he is – ‘Thou art to continue now, thou varlet; thou art to continue.’ Tolerance is invariably preferable to harshness; but you really can’t run a city this way. Not good ‘government.’

Then, in the next scene, we see Angelo, newly invested with ‘absolute power,’ in action when Isabella comes to intercede for her brother. ‘Absolute’ is a word which attaches itself to Angelo; and he certainly merits the criticism addressed by Volumnia to Coriolanus – another fanatic – ‘You are too absolute’ (Coriolanus II, ii, 39). ‘Precise’ is another word which sticks to him; this is appropriate since Puritans (and this was time of Puritan reform agitation in England) were self-confessedly and boastingly ‘precise’ – meaning strict in observance. But it is curiously appropriate that ‘precise’ comes from prae-caedere meaning to cut short, abridge, since this is just what Angelo wants to do to lusty young men, if not to sexuality itself. (In an excellent essay, Paul Hammond makes the neat point that ‘precise’ Angelo ‘needs to be tackled by imprecise means, by approximate, devious, and even lying methods’ – as we shall see.) The ‘removing’ Duke instructs Angelo as he leaves:

In our remove be thou at full ourself;

Mortality and mercy in Vienna

Live in thy tongue and heart.

(I, i, 43-5)

He has, he says, ‘lent him[Angelo] our terror, dressed him with our love.’ Angelo, we quickly see, has gone for terror and mortality, and dropped the mercy and love. This scene (Act II, scene ii) is the first of two scenes that are like nothing else in the whole of Shakespeare for white-hot, scorching, psychological power, and intensity mounting to exploding point. Before looking at these incandescent exchanges, I want to insert a quotation from Henry James: ‘Great were the obscurity and ambiguity in which some impulses lived and moved – the rich gloom of their combinations, contradictions, inconsistencies, surprises.’ (‘The Papers’) – different era; same phenomenon. As we are about to see dramatically enacted.

Isabella and Angelo are both absolutists – in this, they are two of a kind. Isabella almost gives up before she has started, as one intransigent idealist conceding to another:

     O just but severe law!

I had a brother, then. Heaven keep your honor.

Indeed, whatever else we might think of the louche Lucio, we must recognize that it only his prompting of Isabella (‘You are too cold’) that finally saves Claudio’s life. As the legalistic Angelo coldly reiterates:

Your brother is a forfeit of the law,

And you but waste your words.

Isabella’s temper begins to rise, and with it her eloquence:

Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;

And He that might the vantage best have took

Found out the remedy. How would you be,

If He, which is the top of judgment, should

But judge you as you are?

‘Remedy’ is a key word in the play (occurring more often than in any other); ranging from Pompey’s ‘remedy’ as described by Elbow – ‘Nay, if there be no remedy for it, but that you will needs buy and sell men and women like beasts” (III, ii, 1-3), to God’s remedy, through Christ, for the sins of men. But we are neither beasts nor gods, and some other ‘remedy’ for our ills and confusions must be found. Angelo’s implacable ‘no remedy’ (II, ii, 48) means a reign of terror – the Duke will have to find a better way.

The first interview is a terrible collision between insistent Christianity and intractable law; and since we are not in the nunnery but rather in the realm of the social law where Angelo owns the discourse, as we used to say, Angelo is bound to win. But Isabella’s passionate rhetoric continues to gain in heat and power, until Angelo seems to flinch a little – ‘Why do you put these sayings on me?’ and Isabella thrusts home:

Because authority, though it err like others,

Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,

That skins the vice o’ th’top; go to your bosom,

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doeth know

That’s like my brother’s fault; if it confess

A natural guiltiness such as his,

Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue

Against my brother’s life.

Angelo turns aside to murmur: ‘She speaks, and ‘tis/Such sense, that my sense breeds with it.’ She’s got him! But not quite in the way she intended. When Isabella has left, Angelo does knock on his bosom to ask what’s there – and to his horror, he finds foulness.

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

The tempted or the tempted, who sins most?

Ha, not she. Nor doth she tempt; but it is I

That, lying by the violet in the sun,

Do as the carrion does, not as the flow’r,

Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be

That modesty may more betray our sense

Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,

Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary,

And pitch our evils there? O fie, fie, fie!

What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?

Dost thou desire her foully for those things

That make her good?

There is no more electrifying speech in Shakespeare. And note the aptness, as well as the power, of his images. The same sun which brings the flowers to bloom (as in Lucio’s blossoming fields) makes dead flesh even more putrid. And ‘evils’ was a word for privies – thus, why should I want to devastate the temple-pure-Isabella by using her as a place of excrement? The sewer-like, stinking lust of old Vienna – it is the world, after all, of Pompey Bum, an unusual, but surely deliberately designate, surname – has erupted in Angelo himself.

Isabella’s sound ‘sense’ has started his ‘sense’ (sensuality) ‘breeding,’ and we shortly hear the results in a long soliloquy, uttered in the feverish anticipation of Isabella’s imminent second visit. His religion is in tatters and is now no help to him:

Where I would pray and think, I think and pray

To several subjects; heaven hath my empty words,

Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,

Anchors on Isabel: heaven in my mouth,

As if I did but only chew his name,

And in my heart the strong and swelling evil

Of my conception.

This, of course, is like Claudius trying to pray in Hamlet: ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:/Words without thoughts never to heaven go,’ and there is something anticipatory of Macbeth’s ‘swelling act’ as well. The other ‘swelling’ in the play is Juliet’s pregnancy. As so often in Shakespeare, it becomes a dramatic question of increasing urgency whether the ‘swelling evil’ will outgrow and obliterate the good signs of new life. Angelo’s tormented state is one which increasingly attracts Shakespeare’s scrutiny (compare Macbeth’s ‘pestered’ senses). Here it makes Angelo realize the utter falseness of his position of authority:

     O place, O form,

How often dost thou with thy case [outside], thy habit [dress],

Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls

To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.

It is a King Lear-like moment of sudden devastating realization (‘a dog’s obeyed in office, IV< vi, 161); and this almost torrential uprushing of blood in its undeniable, unstaunchable reality, will also afflict Othello. We are already in Shakespeare’s tragic world.

The second interview with Isabella is even more powerful than the first – a sustained crescendo to a heart-stopping climax. Angelo, deploying his legal skills to serve his lust, uses specious arguments and a deformed (not to say depraved) logic to maneuver Isabella into an impossible position. When he advances the apparently hypothetical case that she might save her brother if she would ‘lay down the treasures of your body,’ she responds with a revealing passion:

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.

It is hard not to hear the distorted (masochistic?) sexuality which goes into these overheated words in favour of cold chastity. Better her brother die that she lose that priceless treasure. This enables Angelo to pin her on the contradiction in her stance and arguments. ‘Were not you, then, as cruel as the sentence/That you have slandered so?’  There would be no purpose here in tracing all the twists and turns in this desperate, gripping disputation. Isabella believe – or purports to believe – that Angelo is engaging in somewhat perverse casuistry; as it were, trying to fend off the real import in, or behind, his words as long as possible. Angelo begins to lose patience: ‘Nay, but here me./Your sense pursues not mine/ either you are ignorant,/Or seem so, crafty; and that’s not good.’ So – ‘I’ll speak more gross.’ No more sophistry, no more forensics – ‘Plainly conceive, I love you…My words express my purpose.’ Isabella can no longer deflect or evade his intention, and cries out in outrage – ‘Seeming, seeming!/I will proclaim thee, Angelo.’ But ‘absolute’ Angelo now gives himself over absolutely to lust and corrupt abuse of authority:

     Who will believe thee, Isabel?

My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,

My vouch against you, and my place I’ th’ state,

Will so your accusation overweigh,

That you shall stifle in your own report,

And smell of calumny. I have begun,

And now I give my sensual race the rein.

Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite,

Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,

That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother

By yielding up thy body to my will…

or I will have him tortured to death. Angelo makes his exit with the chillingly triumphant line – ‘Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.’ It is a terrifying speech, laying bare the awesome potential for evil there is in ‘absolute power.’ As for Isabella – what can she do? ‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this/Who would believe me?’ But, whatever happens, she is absolutely firm about one resolve – ‘More than our brother is our chastity.’ Thus ends this extraordinary Act – in a state of total impasse, a sort of throbbing paralysis, with incredibly urgent matters of life and death hanging in the air. Isabella has, after all, only twenty-four hours.”



So…thoughts?  Who is more crazed, Angelo or Isabella?


Our next reading:  Measure for Measure, Act Three

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”

  1. GGG says:

    Wow, this is a gripping play. I think partly because it is so “stripped” (!) down in plot and characters. I am also reminded of the Taming of the Shrew–comedy with a distinct undertone of “not” comedy. Maybe that’s because I am a woman and read the scene with Angelo and Isabella as a scene that probably happens somewhere in the world, every day–a very old story, indeed.

    Angelo, of course, seems the melodramatic evildoer (twirling his mustache) but Isabella does have that air of cuckooness (hmm, maybe not a word) that makes you wonder if there are some questionable edges to her saintly character.

    I haven’t watched the clips yet, but am interested to see how this scene is played.

    • GGG: You’re right about this being a scene played out (power = demand for sex) probably since the dawn of man. But what makes Shakespeare’s version of it so brilliant, is Isabella’s insistence that her virtue is more important than her brother’s life. Just wait until we get to the scene when she explains this to him…

  2. GGG says:

    P.S. So far I don’t think there has been any scene-setting of a visual, poetic nature–no rhapsodizing about the deep blue sea, or the beautiful vista—no happy, lovely thoughts in this comedy! Or maybe I’ve forgotten if that was all of Act one….

Leave a Reply to GGG Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s