Measure for Measure
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: The bed-trick (naturally) works, but the Duke learns that Angelo has failed to keep his side of the bargain: Claudio still faces execution. Invoking the Duke’s authority, he persuades the Provost that another prisoner – also under sentence of death, should be executed early, and that his head should be sent to Angelo as proof of Claudio’s death. (Kind of like the bed trick, but with prisoners). He hides this from Isabella, though (and why?) who believes her brother is dead. The Duke then sends word to Escalus and Angelo that he is ready to return to Vienna.
From Bloom, moving on from his look at the disorder in Vienna…and in the human condition.
“Barnardine is the genius of that disorder, and qualifies as the imaginative center (and greatest glory) of Measure for Measure. Claudio pleads in Act I that all he and Juliet lack is ‘outward order’; except for that, they truly are husband and wife. Angelo, grimly allowing the ‘fornicatress,’ Juliet, ‘needful, but not lavish means, ‘adds, ‘There shall be order for’t.’ The duke also intricately plays upon ‘order,’ as he commands the beheading of Barnardine:
By the vow of mine order, I warrant you, if my instructions may be your guide: let this Barnardine be this morning executed, and his head borne to Angelo.
Sublimely, Barnardine refuses to cooperate: ‘I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion.’ The idea of order in Vincentio’s Vienna ultimately is an idea of death; Barnardine, refusing all order, declines to die, and Shakespeare seconds Barnardine, when he has the Duke finally pardon this confessed murderer. But who is Barnardine, and why is he in this most peculiar of Shakespearean dramas? He is introduced to us by way of an ironic allusion to Ecclesiastes: ‘The slepe of him that travaileth is swete, whether he eate little or much.’ (5:11, Geneva Bible). Claudio, presented by the Provost with his death warrant, answers the question ‘Where’s Barnardine?’:
As fast lock’d up in sleep as guiltless labour
When it lies starkly in the traveller’s bones.
He will not wake.
The ‘traveler’ is also the ‘travailer,’ the poor man or laborer, whose sleep is sweet. Barnardine is guilty, and drunk, but the ‘good’ the Provost intends (‘who can do good on him?’) is just a beheading in the afternoon, the idea of order in Vienna. Of Barnardine we learn more just before we at least first hear and then see him:
Duke: What is that Barnardine, who is to be executed in th’afternoon?
Provost: A Bohemian born, but here nursed up and bred; one that is a prisoner nine years old.
Duke: How came it that the absent Duke had not either delivered him to his liberty, or executed him? I have heard it was ever his manner to do so.
Provost: His friends still wrought reprieves for him; and indeed, his fact till now in the government of Lord Angel came not to an undoubtful proof.
Duke: It is now apparent?
Provost: Most manifest, and not denied by himself.
Duke: Hath he borne himself penitently in prison? How seems he to be touched?
Provost: A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep, careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come: insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal.
Duke: He wants advice.
Provost: He will hear none. He hath evermore had the liberty of the prison: give him leave to escape hence, he would not. Drunk many times a day, if not many days entirely drunk. We have very oft awaked him, as if to carry him to execution, and showed him a seeming warrant for it, it hath not moved him at all.
The superb Barnardine will not play by the rules of Vincentio’s Vienna, and is equally unaffected both by its mortality and its mercy. For Barnardine, nine years have gone by in a drunken slumber, from which he wakes only to refuse escape and execution alike. Perhaps nothing is more dreadfully funny in Measure for Measure than the Duke-Friar’s perturbed ‘He wants advice,’ meaning more ghostly comfort of the ‘Be absolute for death’ variety. With marvelous dramatic cunning, Shakespeare prepares us for the hilarity of Barnardine’s one great scene, by letting Vincentio delude himself as to his power over Barnardine: ‘Call your executi8oner, and off with Barnardine’s head. I will give him a present shrift, and advise him for a better place.’ But we could as well be in Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass when he hear ‘off with Barnardine’s head.’ Vincentio invariably speaks nonsense, as the audience comes to understand. Part of Barnardine’s function is to expose this nonsense; the convicted murderer’s other use is to represent, with memorable starkness, the unregenerate human nature that is Vienna or the world, invulnerable to all the oppressions of order. The authentic comedy in Measure for Measure touches its limit in Barnardine’s apotheosis, which requires to be completed complete:
Sirrah, bring Barnardine hither.
Master Barnardine! you must rise and be hanged.
What, ho, Barnardine!
[Within] A pox o’ your throats! Who makes that
noise there? What are you?
Your friends, sir; the hangman. You must be so
good, sir, to rise and be put to death.
[Within] Away, you rogue, away! I am sleepy.
Tell him he must awake, and that quickly too.
Pray, Master Barnardine, awake till you are
executed, and sleep afterwards.
Go in to him, and fetch him out.
He is coming, sir, he is coming; I hear his straw rustle.
Is the axe upon the block, sirrah?
Very ready, sir.
How now, Abhorson? what’s the news with you?
Truly, sir, I would desire you to clap into your
prayers; for, look you, the warrant’s come.
You rogue, I have been drinking all night; I am not
fitted for ‘t.
O, the better, sir; for he that drinks all night,
and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the
sounder all the next day.
Look you, sir; here comes your ghostly father: do
we jest now, think you?
Enter DUKE VINCENTIO disguised as before
Sir, induced by my charity, and hearing how hastily
you are to depart, I am come to advise you, comfort
you and pray with you.
Friar, not I I have been drinking hard all night,
and I will have more time to prepare me, or they
shall beat out my brains with billets: I will not
consent to die this day, that’s certain.
O, sir, you must: and therefore I beseech you
Look forward on the journey you shall go.
I swear I will not die to-day for any man’s
But hear you.
Not a word: if you have any thing to say to me,
come to my ward; for thence will not I to-day.
Unfit to live or die: O gravel heart!
After him, fellows; bring him to the block.
I have never seen this delicious and profound outrageousness properly directed and acted. Now that legal executions multiply daily in the United States, I would recommend Barnardine’s example to our hosts of residents of Death Row: they simply should refuse the obscene indignity of our decorous gassings, fatal injections, and electrocutions, hangings, and firing squads being (momentarily, doubtless) out of fashion. Barnardine never will be fitted for his execution, and his eloquence illuminates everything that is wonderfully wrong about the world of Measure for Measure: ‘I will not consent to die this day, that’s certain.’ Only that is certain in this play, where Vincentio makes no sense whether as Duke or as Friar, where Isabella’s passionate chastity is an irresistible goad to lust, and where the bed trick is sanctified well beyond Helena’s venture in All’s Well that Ends Well. For me, the best moment in the play is the interchange when the Duke says, ‘But hear you –‘ and Barnardine responds: ‘Not a word.’ The moral compass of this comedy is Shakespeare’s riposte to anyone in the audience capable of being taken in by Vincentio. It is after we have absorbed Barnardine’s dissent that Shakespeare has the Duke-Friar descend to the sadistic degradation of lying to Isabella that her brother has been executed. Angelo, of all men, gets it right when he says of Vincentio, ‘His actions show much like to madness.’”
And from Tanner:
One result of this shift [from verse to prose, from dramatic confrontations to more straightforward narrative], is that everything now centers on the disguised Duke, and Isabella – the Isabella we have seen in verbal combat with Angelo – disappears. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other heroines, she fades away into obedient submission and docile compliance. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other comic heroines, she fades away into obedient submission and docile compliance. ‘Fasten your ear on my advisings…be directed…be ruled’ is the Duke’s line to her; and advised, directed, and ruled she duly is. She becomes almost dumbly passive, and remains silent for the last eighty-five lines of the play. Marcia Poulsen describes her as ‘speechless, a baffled actress who has run out of lines,’ and sees her as a ‘victim of bad playwriting’ – the Duke’s, that is; but also perhaps Shakespeare’s. She diagnoses an ‘unusual sense of female powerlessness’ in this play, and thinks the play as a whole ‘explores the incompatibility of patriarchal and comic structures.’ This may be a rather too contemporary way of looking at it [MY NOTE: You think?]; but it is also true that while Isabella starts with something of the independence and spirit of a Beatrice, a Rosalind (without, of course, the humor), all the life and vitality drain out of her. Shakespeare invented another woman, Mariana, who is just as bidden and obedient as Isabella. When, at the Duke-Friar’s urging, the two women join hands as ‘vaporous night approaches’ in the sad, suggestive moated grange (impossible to forget Tennyson’s poem), he ‘seems almost to merge them together into a single being’ (Jocelyn Powell). Strong female identity seems to be waning in the dusk – generic ‘Woman’ is as wax in the Duke’s hands. Certainly, it becomes entirely the Duke’s play, the Duke’s world.
Many critics have noticed a gradual loss of autonomy and spontaneity in the characters, as the Duke moves them around (Lucio and Barnardine excepted – I’ll come to them). William Empson said the Duke manipulates his subjects ‘as puppets for the fun of seeing them twitch.’ Manipulate them he certainly does, but is it just ‘for fun?’ Was Hazlitt correct in saying that the Duke is ‘more absorbed in his own plots and gravity than anxious for the welfare of the state’? How we answer these questions and charges will determine how we view and value the second part of t he play; for many people have become understandably impatient at the excruciating attenuations and prolongations involved in the Duke’s complicated and often inept plottings and stagings. Why so devious when the power and authority is his to reclaim at any second he chooses? That, it must be said, would hardly be the ‘remedy’ he seeks for the people and condition of Vienna. Nobody and nothing would be changed – Claudio’s execution could be stayed, and Angelo’s hypocrisy exposed, but the previous civic disarray would not be radically healed. You could see the Duke engaged in an uncertain experiment to see how – or even if – justice and mercy can be combined in a moderate, mediating, measured way – not by the ‘measure for measure’ of the Old Law. When the Duke – as Duke – urges the fittingness of the execution of Angelo to Isabella, he says:
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
(V, i, 410-14)
He is, of course, alluding to a saying in Matthew, but, as with so many of the arguments he uses, he is twisting it somewhat, so what he misleadingly calls ‘the mercy of the law’ turns out to be old-style vengeance – an eye for an eye. One can only surmise that, as with the seemingly perverse and cruel, prolonged pretence that Claudio is really dead, he is testing Isabella; educating her out of her absolutism – her first instinct certainly was for violent revenge on Angelo (‘I will to him and pluck out his eyes,’) into true mercy and forgiveness, bringing her to the point when she will actually plead for Angelo’s life, albeit in stiltedly legalistic terms. Perhaps, as Lever suggests, he is re-educating her ‘cloistered virtue’ into a virtue which can serve as an active force in the world. Similarly, the seemingly perverse way he prolongs his apparent faith in Angelo, and the consequent public humiliation of Isabella (and Mariana) can be appreciated if, as Jocelyn Powell suggests, we see him as showing Isabella what she would have been up against if he really had been absent. Of course trusted Angelo would have got away with it, with no redress for the women. This in turn shows all of us just how fragile and vulnerable justice is.
Perhaps it does seem like ‘a mad fantastical trick of him to steal from the state’ (III, ii, 94), as Lucio says, but he should be seen as engaged in a difficult and circuitous quest – to see for himself the condition he has allowed his state to fall into, and to try what shifts and stratagems might put things to rights. When he ways
My business in this state
Made me a looker-on here in Vienna,
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’errun the stew…
(V, i, 317-20)
he is speaking as the Friar, but also as the Duke. The idea of absconding from his manifest role, but still surveying his realm, has some soft of a precedent in the notion of a dues absconditus, an idea which goes back to the Old Testament (‘Verily thou art a god that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour,’ Isaiah 45:15). But we should certainly not be tempted to regard the Duke as an incarnate figure of God. Some nourishment for this idea is provided by the lines of Angelo, when the Duke is revealed in Act V:
O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like pow’r divine,
Hath looked upon my passes.
(V, i, 379-73)
From this, some critics (notably Wilson Knight) have gone on to treat the whole play as an orthodox Christian allegory based on the gospel teaching. This is very wide of the mark. The Duke – like the English kings – rules by divine right; but he is, himself, a ‘deputy elected by the Lord’ – just as he appoints Angelo to be his ‘Deputy.’ When Angelo comes before the Duke to be judged, it is an image of the position the Duke himself (like everyone else) will be in before the truly divine God. On earth, he is only ‘like pow’r divine.’ That he seeks to act as a sort of secular providence, sometimes coercively, sometimes fumblingly, is a better description. Centrally, he is a seventeenth-century ruler, trying to work out the best way to rule – getting the balance of justice and mercy right.
But he is also, as is often noted, a sort of playwright and theatre director, and not always a very good one – certainly, he does not have Propsero’s serene power. He makes mistakes, stratagems don’t work as he intends, some things (and people) he just cannot control, and he loses his temper in a rather un-ducal way. That is part of the point of the somehow admirable brute obstinacy and total intransigence of Barnardine (no ‘seemer,’ he), whose execution is part of one of the Duke’s more desperate plots. The following scene is illustrative of the limits to the Duke’s power. The Duke tells Barnardine hs is to die:
Barnardine: I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion.
Duke: But hear you –
Barandine: Not a word. If you have anything to say to me, come to my ward, for thence will not I today. Exit.
‘Not a word’ is a marvel of insolence, and the Duke is left sputtering with impotent rage. There is a similar point in the duke’s inability to shake Lucio off, or make him shut up. Lucio’s talk is scabrous and obscene, and he often appears in an unamiable light; but some of the few comic moments occur (or so I find) when the disguised Duke, hearing himself traduced and mocked (‘the old fantastical Duke of dark corners,’) simply can’t get rid of him –‘Nay, friar, I am a kind of burr; I shall stick,’ and again when the Duke, increasingly irritated, simply can’t get Lucio to stay silent in the last, big juridical scene. Unlike Isabella, these two will not be directed or advised. An allegorical reading of the play has nothing to say regarding the Duke’s helplessness with burrs that insist on sticking.
In the strange couplets, gnomic rather than theophanic, in which the Duke soliloquizes at the end of Act III, he tells us something of his strategies and intentions, concluding:
Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo tonight shall lie
With his old betrothed but despised;
So disguise shall, by th’disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.
This is the sort of questionable ethical casuistry we [will hear] in All’s Well that Ends Well; I will out-disguise disguise, beat falsehood with more falsehood – exactly, use ‘craft against vice.’ It has been called ‘redemptive deceit’ and ‘creative deception,’ and it certainly requires some paradoxical gloss. ‘Craft’ might be taken to include stagecraft, and the Duke certainly uses quite a few tricks of the trade, not always successfully or convincingly. (Brockbank made the nice point that he seems to invent the moated grange, Mariana, and Angelo’s previous engagement – which exactly mirrors that between Claudio and Juliet, down to the blocked dowry which prevents both marriages – as a sort of desperate remedy, ‘finding a theatrical solution to an otherwise insoluble human problem.’) Everything seems to come right in the end – just about, more or less – but without any of the feeling of joyful regeneration and renewal, a world transformed, that a truly successful comedy should arouse.
If the Duke is, in truth, not a very good playwright, the unanswerable question is to what extent his failings are Shakespeare’s as well. Some critics think that the dramaturgical ineptness is Shakespeare’s, and no one can deny that after the thrilling drama of Act II, the play seems to slacken and lose force. But, arguably, no play could continue at that level of intensity, and perhaps we should see the duke – with an awakened concern for ‘good government’ – as trying, with rather hastily devised tricks and ruses (time is short), to steer things into calmer, quieter waters, patching up a solution to the impasse which has so quickly developed. Perhaps Shakespeare is, in fact, exposing the often rather crude and necessarily mendacious ways in which any playwright somehow stitches things together for a tolerably harmonious conclusion. Perhaps he is also showing how easily and rapidly evil can burst out and take over – in a man, in a city (the first two Acts); and how difficult and awkward it is to achieve some sort of restitution and bring about a balanced, precarious justice (the last three Acts).”
Or, perhaps, Shakespeare knew exactly what he was about…more on the conclusion in my next post.
And…I really hope you’ll all enjoying the play (and the scene with Barnadine) as much as I do.
And as a bonus, in case you didn’t see this in the paper this week…http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2301829/Was-Shakespeare-tax-dodger-Bard-ruthless-businessman-exploited-famine-faced-jail-cheating-revenue.html
Our next reading: Measure for Measure, Act Five
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.