Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s most disputed plays. It has been condemned over the years for its immorality, for its lack of artistry, and for the implausibility of the plot. Coleridge (Lectures and Notes on Shakspere) argued
Another aspect of the play that has caused controversy is its classification. In the First Folio of 1623 (where the play was published for the first time) it is placed among the comedies; however, it sits rather uncomfortably in the company of plays such as Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespearean comedy has been defined as the movement from chaos to order; and there are certainly elements of that movement here. Comedies focus on the chaos that precedes the reestablishment of order – indeed, the establishment of an order greater than the order at the beginning of the play. The order of the Venetian state under the Duke is quickly thrown into doubt by his hasty exit; and chaos threatens to undermine both virtue and rule itself by Angelo’s accession into immorality. The “return” of the Duke and his dealing with the wrongdoers shows order again resurgent. And comedies tend to have two types of chaos: comedic chaos – the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the comedy of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and the chaos that threatens order – Egeus’s determination to have his daughter put to death, Don John’s plot against Hero that results in her reported death. Certainly, Measure for Measure has both of these: the lewd but pragmatic humour of Pompey Bum throws Angelo’s “violation” of Isabella and the reported death of Claudio in to stark relief.
Set against this, however, is the fact that the play comes close to tragedy. This is true of the other comedies too: the supposed death of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, for example. However, in Measure for Measure, the comedy is darkened throughout by the tragic overtones: Pompey and Mistress Overdone in the prison, Pompey as apprentice executioner. Shakespeare’s source for the play was Whetstone’s Historye of Promos and Cassandra, which derived from Cinthio’s stories, Hecatommithi, written in 1565. Here the work is tragedy: the Angelo figure (Promos) seduces the Isabella figure (Cassandra) and has the Claudio figure, her brother, wrongly put to death. Whilst Shakespeare rescues the story from the tragic ending, partly by the inspiration of incorporating the “bed trick” device, this still arguably overshadows the play.
The Victorian critic F.S. Boas coined the term “problem play” to deal with this classification dilemma (Shakespeare and his Predecessors,1896). Rather than trying to duck the issue with the term, he was arguing that these plays (he also included All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida) deal with moral problems through the characters portrayed. Problem plays
Provocatively, I should like to make a claim for a different category for this play: Romance. A Shakespearean romance is not, as the modern use of the word would suggest, simply a love story: romance is a term coined by Edward Dowden (Shakespeare: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 1875) to describe Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Comedy is the movement from chaos to order, and tragedy the movement from order to chaos (with a lesser order restored at the end); romance, like comedy, is centred upon the movement from chaos to order – but whereas comedy focuses on the amusing (and also threatening) chaos, which tends to become most extreme just before the restoration of order (consider Orsino’s threat to kill Viola/Caesario in Twelfth Night), romance concentrates on the mechanism that allows order to be restored. In The Tempest, our focus is Prospero, and his magical control assures us that all will be well. Similarly, the presence of the Duke in Measure for Measure, disguised as a Friar, emphasises to the audience that, despite Angelo’s machinations, order will be re-established. Therefore, throughout we are assured that Angelo’s scheming is ultimately futile as is the plotting of Trinculo and Stephano to kill Prospero.
There is more argument for this case, however. A key element of romance is that order is restored beyond human understanding: in Cymeline Imogen and Posthumus are reunited after each believing the other dead; Thaisa is miraculously restored to life, and Pericles, by following the dictates of the Goddess Diana is reunited with his wife and daughter (Marina). Indeed, Shakespeare extends this concept in The Winter’s Tale: believing he has killed both his daughter and his wife, Leontes puts his faith in Paulina and mourns for 16 years before his daughter, Perdita, in fulfilment of Apollo’s prophecy, is returned to him. But Shakespeare has a trick up his sleeve: the audience knows of Perdita’s history, but shares in Leontes’s faith in the workings of divine providence when it is revealed that his wife Hermione is also alive and is restored to him. So how does this apply to Measure for Measure? By donning the habit of a friar, Shakespeare gives the Duke aspects of the divine; Mariana, the Provost, Claudio and Isabella all put their faith in him, having faith that order will be re-established. And as with all the romances, the working of divine providence beyond human understanding is illustrated by the restoration of one believed dead: Isabella discovers that Claudio has not been executed by Angelo.
To strengthen the argument, even the Duke puts his trust in divine providence. Having rejected the possibility of executing Barnardine and using his head to convince Angelo that Claudio has been executed, the Duke’s faith is rewarded by the provision of another body, “One Ragozine, a most notorious pirate,
Another important context (to use AQA speak) is that of rule and authority. The first two lines of the play,
Throughout the play, the Duke, even in his supposed absence, is spoken of in reverential terms – except, of course, by Lucio
On the other hand, we do have a problem with the concept of the Duke as ideal ruler: as soon as we are introduced to him, we learn that he is leaving Vienna for an unspecified reason and an unspecified time. He also appoints Angelo, who fails in the Duke’s trust, over the more experienced Escalus, as his deputy. How can these be the actions of a wise ruler?
Furthermore, when we the audience learn of the Duke’s reasons for leaving, we have another question to answer. The Duke tells the Friar Thomas that he is leaving because he has been lax in applying the laws to enforce morality, and therefore has appointed Angelo to enforce these laws, leaving the Duke himself free from accusations of tyranny. Shakespeare shows that the Friar is alive to the problems with this:
Arguably, Shakespeare has the Duke himself give answer to both. By his plan to disguise himself and watch what proceeds,
In Elizabethan and Jacobean philosophy, there were two (sometimes contradictory) elements essential to effective rule. First, the ruler must have his (or, more rarely, her – a problem initially for Elizabeth I) status approved by God: the King or Queen must have “Divine Right” to rule. Secondly, the ruler must be effective in ruling: “The King must rule”. So, in Hamlet, for example, Claudius is shown to be an effective ruler: he enters the stage in pomp, accompanied by “mannerly distinguishment” (except from his nephew, Hamlet), and his first action is to defuse a crisis in foreign policy: Fortinbras of Norway threatens to invade Denmark to take back diputed territory. Claudius skilfully deals with the situation without recourse to war – Claudius, it seems, can rule. However, he does not possess Divine Right, as he has murdered his brother to reach the throne, and therefore he is doomed to fail. Conversely, Richard II has Divine Right to rule – he is the legitimate heir of Edward III, being the son of the Black Prince, Edward’s eldest son; however, he is shown by Shakespeare to be constitutionally unfit to rule, and therefore cannot keep his throne.) Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt that the Duke has Divine Right. Whilst in Act 1 Scene 1 we may have been uneasy about the Duke’s ability to rule, we are reassured by his presence behind the scenes (almost literally) in the rest of the play. Of course, Shakespeare plays with the audience by forcing us to wait until Act 1 Scene 4 before our doubts are resolved – perhaps to allow us to speculate on these very issues.
Further exploration on the context of Rule brings in another context: that of Religion. As the discussion on the philosophy of rule above has shown, rule for Shakespeare’s society includes the concept of divine approbation for the ruler. Shakespearean society was very concerned with hierarchy: indeed, part of the appeal of the theatre in Shakespeare’s time (and one of the reasons that the theatre was regarded as potentially subversive) was that it threatened hierarchy. Actors – regarded by society with some contempt – were able to dress and act as members of the elite: indeed, as monarchs. And this in an age of the sumptuary laws – laws that dictated what clothing and possessions each rank in society was permitted, and laws that laid down strict punishments for those who transgressed them.
Hierarchy was important for Shakespeare’s age because it mirrored their concept of the universe. Because everything is created by God, and God is the ultimate ruler, all created things ideally reflect God’s order. This concept is often called the Macrocosm/Microcosm world picture: as explored by by E.M.W. Tillyard in The Elizabethan World Picture, and deriving largely from Platonic philosophy, the large is reflected in the little. So, the Universe can be viewed as a pyramid with God at the top, and then layers of hierarchy under him: the (three) choirs of angels; mankind; the animal kingdom (itself a word derived from the concept of Macrocosm/Microcosm!); the plants; inanimate matter. These tiers themselves reflect this God-derived arrangement: so the top of the animal kingdom is occupied by the lion, and the other species in tiers below him; the birds have the eagle; and the kingdoms of mankind, of course, have the monarch at the head, with the rest of society in ordered ranks under their ruler, from the aristocracy to the slave.
Indeed, this philosophy – accept your place in society and remain in it, as you will be disrupting God’s order if you strive to move up the social scale – is celebrated in a verse of the children’s hymn that nowadays is never sung (and indeed has been excised from most hymn books!) In Mrs Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander’s hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful (1848), after the chorus
we find the verse
And one of the debates in this play is the relationship between secular and spiritual rule. The concept of the macrocosm and the microcosm suggests these spheres are not in fact separate. All authority, whether spiritual or secular, is ultimately derived from God; and therefore ruling justly and effectively is working in accordance with God’s order; failing to so rule is working against God, and is thus sinful.
So Angelo may have the right to rule: he has been given the power by the Duke,
Indeed, the very title of the play moves us immediately into the context of religion. Shakespeare’s audience would be more likely than a modern audience, perhaps, to recognise the allusion in Measure for Measure, but it is a familiar one from Matthew Chapter 7:
The World English Bible translates this as
Angelo is condemned, then, by the very title of the play, and using dramatic irony Shakespeare prepares the audience for this: in Act 2 Scene 1 Angelo says in answer to Escalus’s plea for Claudio’s life,
Secular and spiritual rule is amalgamated in this play by the Duke. As absolute ruler of a dukedom, he embodies secular authority; by adopting the habit of a friar, visually he becomes a representative of spiritual rule. It is interesting that Shakespeare chooses to disguise the Duke as a friar: friars in the literature of the time were usually figures of fun, and are low in the order of the hierarchy of the church. Perhaps Shakespeare is showing the importance of spiritual authority here: even a lowly friar represents the power of the divinity. It is also interesting that the other prominent character who visually to the audience represents spirituality is Isabella, about to enter a nunnery; perhaps the play is suggesting that Isabella’s decision to remove herself from the secular world into a cloister is not the best way to deal with the problems of the world? A friar is a member of a mendicant order who, rather than cloistering himself away from the world, travels in it to spread comfort and spiritual solace.
Indeed, we can move from this suggestion that in the Duke, Shakespeare is showing a unity between secular and spiritual rule, and go further. Perhaps Shakespeare intends the Duke to be an avatar , a representative of God himself? The Duke devolves power to Angelo in the same way that the “Divine Right” philosophy would have argued God devolves power to earthly rulers. The Duke as the Friar is aware of all that happens, and his constant controlling presence is both a reassurance to the audience that all will be well and a reminder that the Duke, in the fullness of time, will return again to take up his position, something Christians believe to be true of Christ. Furthermore, as has previously been argued, the provost, Isabella, Marianna and Claudio trust in the friar’s spiritual authority rather than Angelo’s secular power, the provost at risk to his own life; their faith mirrors the faith of the Christian in God’s underlying presence in a world that to human eyes can seem chaotic and meaningless.
This argument is furthered by the events at the end of the play, and also links to a further context, that of morality. The “problem play” categorisation offered by Boas is al least here fitting: Shakespeare is clearly engaging the audience in a debate about morality – specifically, how humans balance the demands of absolute morality with the business of existing in society.
There appears to be a spectrum of morality in Measure for Measure. At one end we have Angelo and Isabella: both characters rigid in their ideas about good and evil, seeing the world in black and white. This note is often emphasised by directors; Isabella, as one about to enter a nunnery as a novice, dressed simply in the habit of a nun, Angelo, who “scarce confesses
Conversely, Angelo’s belief in his own integrity and the absolute nature of virtue gives him no defence against the first stirrings of the human emotion of lust: his moral landscape is completely inverted, and instead of revering virtue he seeks to destroy it, wishing to despoil Isabella’s chastity, the very thing which causes his attraction to her. By the end of the play Angelo is wiser, aware of his own human frailty – he is very different from the man who sought to have Claudio put to death for a technical infringement of the law. Shakespeare is here arguing that absolutes are dangerous: as human beings, we do not live in a world where absolute virtue is an attainable goal. In the same way, it is Othello’s absolute love for Desdemona that makes him vulnerable to Iago’s plotting, and Coriolanus’s absolute belief in the perfection of Rome that causes him to fight against, and nearly destroy, the very country he loves.
And on the other end of the scale sits Pompey Bum. Not immoral but amoral, he embodies the extremity of the pragmatism necessary for man to live in postlapsarian society. When informed of the decision to rid Vienna of prostitution and immorality, his response is both amusing and well observed:
Part of the moral debate in the play revolves around the clash between two concepts of rule: the moral ideal of the “just ruler” and Machiavellian pragmatism. Niccolò Machiavelli was a 16th Century Italian political theorist. Often misinterpreted, he is infamous for arguing that the ends justify the means: that the business of a ruler is to keep power even at the expense of morality. In Chapter XVII of his most influential work, The Prince (Il Principe, published in 1515) , he considers whether it is better to be loved than feared. He concludes that it is ideal to be both loved and feared, but the important thing is to be feared, because only by fear can men, most of whom are naturally wicked, be forced to act for the good of society.
His writings had a huge impact on the political thought of Shakespeare’s day. Whilst condemned as immoral (because of the argument that when ruling a country practicality rather than morality is the important issue), they exerted a fascination because of their pragmatic focus on what works. Hamlet looks at this debate from the perspective of Machiavellianism: Claudius epitomizes the Machiavellian ruler, who is “Hoist with his own petard” only when Hamlet too is infected by the disease of scheming. Measure for Measure focuses on the other end of the spectrum. The Duke is, arguably, adopting Machiavellian methods to bring about a desirable end: he adopts disguise, relies on duplicity in the “bed trick”, itself of dubious morality and argues in almost explicitly Machiavellian terms that “the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof.” However, when The Duke is offered the chance to hasten the death of Barnardine to save Claudio he refuses to do so, rejecting Machiavellianism in favour of adherence to extreme morality., a choice approved by Heaven, as evidenced by the unexpected provision of the head of Ragozine.
This brings us to the questions posed by the ending of the play. In the Cinthio version, the Angelo figure, Promos, is condemned to death for his actions. The title and the dramatic irony present in Angelo’s response to Escalus,
This too might explain what seems even more inexplicable – the pardoning of Barnardine. He is a self-confessed unrepentant murderer, a drunkard with no respect for law, authority or for his own life. Yet the Duke pardons him his “earthly faults” – an action that in earthly society would be an almost unpardonable dereliction of responsibility for a ruler. Arguably, however, Shakespeare is here showing the extent of God’s forgiveness: as human beings, even if we approve of the pardoning of Angelo, who after all had in fact neither killed Claudio nor violated Isabella, we would surely support the punishment of Barnardine. In this play, however, God – the Duke – is shown to be more merciful than his fallen children: we are no longer on a stage that represents a realistic political forum, but instead one that enshrines the mercy that by Christian myth we shall all rely on once Christ has returned.
“Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;