“Thou hast nor youth, nor age,/But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep/Dreaming on both.”

Measure for Measure

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


Shakespeare in the Park, Central Park, NYC

Shakespeare in the Park, Central Park, NYC

Act Three:  The Duke (still in disguise) visits Claudio to prepare him for death. Isabella arrives at the prison, and reluctantly tells her brother about Angelo’s proposition. But when he begs her to agree and save his life, she is outraged. The Duke overhears their conversation and suggests a solution:  Isabella must trick Angelo into sleeping with his ex-fiancée, Mariana, in the belief that she is actually Isabella.


Obviously, Isabella’s speech (as well as Isabella herself) has a disconcerting effect on Angelo.  He is smitten and – stunned by these new feelings – offers her the deal that we have been expecting all along.  This is the crux on which Measure for Measure turns – whether Isabella should allow herself to be raped by him in order to save her brother, or allow Claudio to die and hold on to her convictions (and virginity). Her response to this, which is to decide that “more than our brother is our chastity” (2.4.185) has attracted, not surprisingly, violent disagreement: she has been attacked as a “vixen” and “self-absorbed” (by male-critics, again, not surprisingly), but also defended as “saintly,” and completely committed to ideals that few of us have the courage to face.  (For my part, I think she’s more than slightly unhinged.)  For Claudio though, who initially seems convinced that Isabella must save herself, when confronted with the logical outcome of that, changes his mind.  “Death is a fearful thing,” he reminds a horrified Isabella:

Isabella:  And shamed life a hateful.


Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod, and the dilated spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world; or to be worse than worst

Of those that lawless and incertain thought

Imagine howling – ‘tis too horrible!

Though Claudio is hardly Hamlet, he does take up the Prince’s musings on “the undiscovered country,” and argues, spelling it out in graphically fearful detail, than it must be more horrific than anything life can offer.  Though nearer to it than most, he articulates the main problem repeatedly offered by the play: whether it is preferable to allow life, in all of its ultimately flawed corruption, or cut it off.

In Measure for Measure we are forced to see every point of view and to ask every question:  Claudio has sinned (at least according to the law, but should he die? Is it right that Isabella should submit to Angelo in order to save him?  Can the end (saving a life) ever justify the means (rape)? Can “measure” truly answer for “measure? The play, following its title, places these ethical issues side by side and demands that they be resolved.


Continuing from where we left off with Tanner:

Guerilla Shakespeare Company

Guerilla Shakespeare Company

“This is only the end of Act II: no play could continue at this level of intensity for long. It carries over to the next scene, in the prison, in which the Duke disguised as a friar seeks to reconcile Claudio to dying – ‘Be absolute for death’ and so on (III, i, 5-41). It is a long speech and a curious one for a friar, containing not a trace or hint of Christian hope, redemption, the soul, the after-life, immortality, whatever. It is, in fact, much more in the tradition of the ancient Stoics, the overall drift being that, when it comes to life, you are better off without it. This is certainly a tenable position; but, for a man of God, an odd one to advance. It denies man any dignity and honour, and human existence any point or value. It could have been spoken by Hamlet, and is in keeping with the bleak mood which often prevails in these ‘problem plays,’ but it is hard to see what the Duke-Friar is up to. However, that turns out to be true of a lot of what he does. This is followed by the mountingly intense scene between Isabella and her brother which comes to a head when Claudio learns that there is, in fact, a ‘remedy’ – i.e., Isabella’s going to bed with Angelo) and after an initial brave attempt to respond to her appeal to his nobility and sense of honour, he understandably breaks down – ‘Ay, but to die, and go we know not where.’ It is an incredibly powerful speech (justly famous), and you can feel the dread of death whipping through it like an icy wind. It is a fear which must surely touch all mortals at one time or another, whatever they believe. ‘Sweet sister, let me live’ – anyone can understand the appeal. Her answer reveals the hysterical nature of her abhorrence of unchastity.

Die, perish! Might but my bending down

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.

I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,

No word to save thee.

Here is a flaring up of that ‘vindictive anger.’ Pater noted in the young novitiate. The impasse is now complete: Claudio, surely dies tomorrow.

Then the Duke-Friar steps forward and says ‘Vouchsafe a word, young sister, but one word’ – and the play suddenly changes. For one thing, it shifts into prose. Up till now, all the main characters have spoken in verse; the low life, as usual, alone speaking prose (and even Lucio speaks verse to Isabella). From now on, nearly all the exchanges are conducted in prose until the last Act, which returns to verse, but verse of a rather flat, formal kind – more geared to making pronouncements than discoveries. Claudio’s fear-of-death speech is the last of the searing, intensely dramatic, image-packed verse which brings the second Act of the play to its almost unbearably intense pitch. After the Duke-Friar moves into prose, everything seems to get quieter and slow down: the mode changes, the mood changes, the atmosphere changes, the pace changes – instead of dramatic confrontations and agonistic struggles, we have a more narrative mode of intrigue and arrangement. It is quite a shock. As Brockbank says, ‘we pass from Shakespeare’s poetry at its most urgent and exploratory to the easy lies and evasions of the Duke’s ‘crafty’ talk.’ We also move from ‘consummate psychological insight’ (Wilson Knight) to something much more like Romance, as we approach the strange second part of the play, we would do well to bear in mind Brockbank’s reminder that Shakespeare is ‘the romantic playwright, using Romance tricks to recover order from human disarray.’ And so, in his way, is the Duke.

And from Bloom:

theatricum botanicum

theatricum botanicum

“Angelo alone might suffice as a peculiar admirer for the curious Isabella, but Shakespeare is determined to overgo himself, and so passes on to the disguised Duke, in the central scene of the play (Act III, Scene i), which is dominated by an uncanny eloquence that reverberates far more magnificently out of context than in it. We have encountered this oddity before in Ulysses’ set pieces in Troilus and Cressida, but not on the scale of the Duke’s response to Claudio’s ‘I have hope to live, and am prepar’d to die.’ Here is the spiritual advice of the supposed Friar, a litany of sorrows that profoundly moved two very different sensibilities, those of Dr. Samuel Johnson and T.S. Eliot:

Claudio: I have hope to life, and am prepar’d to die.


Be absolute for death: either death or life

Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:

If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing

That none but fools would keep. A breath thou art,

Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep’st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death’s fool;
For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn’st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear’st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou’rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget’st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.


Johnson and Eliot alike centered upon the most haunting cognitive music in this great (but in context greatly empty) speech:

     Thou hast nor youth, nor age,

But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep

Dreaming on both.

Johnson commented:

This is exquisitely imagined. When we are young we busy ourselves in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languor of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.

‘Dinner’ for Shakespeare and Johnson is our ‘lunch’; Johnson’s sense of the unlived life was never stronger.

The Duke-Friar’s speech is blasphemously anything but Christian comfort. It sounds impressive to the highest degree, and owes its general aura to Hamlet’s soliloquies, but the emptiness at our core that harried Hamlet seems to be rather a good thing to the Duke-Friar. If he is serious, then he is half-crazed; which may very well be the case. Northrop Frye summed up this speech by saying that it advised Claudio to die as soon as possible, because if he lived he might catch several unpleasant diseases. Yet to dismiss the Duke’s oration is hardly possible; it moves with a grandeur that enhances its nihilism, with a sonority that is eternal.  The speech’s stance is Epicurean, and suggests the polemic against the fear of death in Lucretius, with just a dash of Senecan Stoicism tossed in for flavoring. With music so pompously irrelevant, the Duke’s eloquence nevertheless momentarily inspires Claudio to an appropriately answering double talk, which, like the Duke’s speech, does not say what it means, nor mean what it says.

     I humbly thank you.

To sue to life, I find I seek to die,

And seeking death, find life. Let it come on.

We can make immediate sense neither of the Duke nor of his ghostly advice, because Shakespeare will not have it so. Vincentio indeed is what Lucio calls him: ‘the duke of dark corners,’ addicted to disguises, sadistic teasings, and designs hopelessly duplicitous. Since Lucio is the only rational and sympathetic character in this absurdist comedy (except for the superb Barnardine), it seems safe to assume that his constant verbal assaults on the Duke speak for us, the audience, and for Shakespeare, if anyone except for Barnardine can represent the playwright’s economy of affection amidst such folly. Let us assume that Lucio gets everything right, as several critics have said before me, Marc Shell most fully. The Duke’s lust for Isabella then takes on its proper resonance; what in Angelo was a Return of the Repressed becomes in Vincentio a desperate drive away from libertinism, from the sexual malaise that he amply shares with his seething city of bawds and whores. His flight from the city’s stew of sexual corruption is manifestly a flight from himself, and his cure, as he sees it, is the innocent temptress Isabella, whose passion for chastity is perhaps reversible, or so he hopes. Shell rightly observes that Lucio portrays the Duke’s own bad intentions, and I think we can go further than that. No one else in Shakespeare is a weirdly motivated (or nonmotivated) as Vincentio, and many if not most of his opacities vanish if Lucio is a truth teller and not a slanderer. Lucio will not let Vincentio alone: ‘Nay, friar, I am a kind of burr, I shall stick.’ One fantastic sees himself in the other: a gallant of the light finding a gallant of dark corners. Who knows better than Lucio the Vienna of Mistress Overdone, Kate Keepdown, and Pompey Bum? Are we to believe Lucio, who tells the Friar, ‘Thou knowest not the Duke so well as I do. He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for,’ or do we believe Vincentio’s overdefense:

O place and greatness! Millions of false eyes

Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report

Run with these false, and most contrarious guest

Upon thy doings: thousand escapes of wit

Make thee the father of their idle dream

And rack thee in their fancies.

(V, i, 60-65)

It is the lament of all modern celebrities, political and theatrical, in the era of instant journalism: Lucio the flaneur is the journalist of Vincentio’s Vienna, and his lies ring out some wounding truths. Who can believe the Duke’s protestations to the authentic Friar Thomas: ‘Believe not that the dribbling dart of love/Can pierce a complete bosom,’ and ‘Even like an o’er-grown lion in a cave/That goes not out to prey.’ Vincentio is his own Vienna; he is the disease he purports to cure. I borrow this splendid formulation from Karl Kraus, who did not gratify Sigmund Freud by mordantly observing that psychoanalysis was the malady it attempted to alleviate. Shakespeare’s Vienna is a pre-Freudian joke against Freud, a Shakespearean revenge for Freud’s ardent support of the delightful argument that the low-born ‘man from Stratford” had stolen all his plays from the mighty Earl of Oxford. Vincentio is the type of all of those Freudian heretics who rebelled against their patriarch, and seduced their female patients even as they proclaimed the scientific purity of the psychoanalytic transference. That would make Isabella the type of all those gifted and beautiful, disturbed and disturbing hysterical muses of psychoanalysis, the women of Vienna whom Freud and his disciples both exalted and exploited. Vincentio’s handling of Isabella – between persuading her to assist in plotting the bed trick, and then deceiving her as to Claudio’s execution – is very much a transference manipulation, a psychic conditioning intended to prepare her to fall in love with her ghostly father, the false Friar and wayward Duke.

That returns us to the ‘Be absolute for death’ oration, an early phase of the Duke’s campaign to seduce Isabella, by first working her brother into a terror that will provoke the saintly sister into an answering rapture of angry hysteria against her wretched sibling. Again we can see Vincentio as a prelude to Iago, though he lacks Iago’s fierce clarity. The undersong of ‘Be absolute for death’ is caught by Eliot when he uses ‘Thou hast nor youth, nor age,/But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep/Dreaming on both’ as the epigraph to his Gerontion, a hymn to the desiccation of death-in-life, a rhapsody of negations. The Duke speaks for the Duke for a savage reductionist who has empties life of all value. Each of us is a servile breath, a fool or victim, base, cowardly, sleepy, a concourse of atoms, caught between past and future in an illusory present, poor, moon-crazed, friendless, and subject to a thousand little deaths. We are our anxieties, no more, no less, and so we are well out of it all. That is Isabella’s suitor, and it is small wonder that we never know whether she will take the Duke or not, maddest of Vienna’s mad as she is. But we know why he wants her; he is so vast a sensible emptiness that her zealous chastity at least might spur him to some zest of his own.

With us, Vincentio eavesdrops on the remarkable exchange between brother and sister that is Shakespeare’s most rancid salute to the joys of siblinghood. To Isabella’s stern ‘Dar’st thou die?’ Claudio renders a falsely magnificent answer:

     If I must die,

I will encounter darkness as a bride

And hug it in mine arms.

Were that said by Antony or Coriolanus, it would be something. In context it receives its proper reply in Isabella’s deathly tribute:

There spake my brother: there my father’s grave

Did utter forth a voice. Yes, thou must die.

Had Hamlet a sister, she might have spoken to him thus. Isabella is nothing but the voice of the dead father, feeding upon life. And Claudio, at his most eloquent, begs for his life, even at the expense of his sister’s virtue, in a speech that Milton remembered (perhaps involuntarily) when he had the crafty Belial counsel passivity in Paradise Lost’s debate in Hell:


Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

This Lucretian ecstasy of dread goes past Isabella’s sadism to reply primarily to the Duke’s ‘Be absolute for death,’ as though Claudio has needed some time to absorb that admonition. Isabella, however, needs no time whatsoever to react with all her pent-up force:

O you beast!   

O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!       

Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?     

Is ’t not a kind of incest, to take life  

From thine own sister’s shame? What should I think?                 

Heaven shield my mother play’d my father fair;       

For such a warped slip of wilderness

Ne’er issu’d from his blood. Take my defiance;        

Die, perish! Might but my bending down       

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.                 

I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,    

No word to save thee.

Setting aside Isabella’s rather clear preference for her father over her mother, and firmly fending off her plain nastiness, this astonishing outburst could be judged the play’s true center (as it is judged by Marc Shell). Yet this is not the hysteria it may seem: as I have stated earlier, for Isabella every act of coition is ‘a kind of incest,’ and her desire to become a bride of Christ is certainly authenticated. Does she speak for herself only, or is this also Measure for Measure’s true voice of cognition and of feeling? In Vincentio’s Vienna, as in Freud’s, reality comes down to sex and death, though Vincentio’s city is even closer to the formula: sex equals incest equals death. That equation is the only idea of order in Measure for Measure, as it was also Hamlet’s reductive idea of order until his sea change and emergence into disinterestedness in Act V. But in Measure for Measure we are given nothing like Hamlet’s intellectual consciousness. Rather, we are halfway between Hamlet and Iago. Vincentio has neither Hamlet’s transcendent mind nor Iago’s diabolical will, yet he seethes with Hamlet’s sexual malaise and with Iago’s drive to manipulate others, to weave his own web. Hamlet composes The Mousetrap, Iago and Othello-trap, and Vincentio, a would-be comic dramatist, arranges marriages…Shakespeare employs Vincentio as the ultimate parody of the comic play-botcher, brining order to a Vienna that cannot endure order. Yet what is the Duke’s Vienna except Shakespeare’s London, or our New York City, or any other vital disorder of the human?



Our next reading:  Measure for Measure, Act Four, and the glory that is Barnardine.

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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