"Honest in nothing but his clothes": The World of Measure for Measure

Program notes by Kel Pero


Both audiences and students of Shakespeare quickly learn that the term comedy has a fairly specific meaning in the context of his plays, and that meaning often has little to do with humour. Not that there isn’t a great deal of humour in Shakespeare’s comedies – there is, much of it broad and bawdy – but in the world of his plays, the concept of comedy is more closely related to notions of social cohesion and peace, most often exemplified by the new or impending marriages that cluster at the plays’ ends. The stability that Shakespeare’s England sought in a strong and upright monarchy was reflected in small in the married couple and the promise they represented of future generations. If social and political chaos may be said to represent misery – and to an English Renaissance audience living under a system in which a monarch ruled as well as reigned, it would – a story that ends with this promise is a story in which order triumphs, and which can thus be said to be “happy.”

Of such unions we have no lack in Shakespeare’s comedies. But some plays, although replete with nuptials, sound small sour notes at their conclusions. Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, is left unmarried and alone at the end of Much Ado About Nothing. Malvolio leaves the happy couples at the end of Twelfth Night with a promise to exact revenge for their mistreatment of him. Measure for Measure leaves no such loose ends – the honour of both the pregnant Juliet and the spurned Mariana is satisfied, and Duke Vincentio himself, returned to his rightful position of power in Vienna, proposes marriage to the virtuous Isabella (or Isabel; Shakespeare uses both forms of her name). Even the vulgar Lucio, before being taken to prison, is threatened with marriage to a woman he has bragged of impregnating. Order is restored. Measure for Measure is, in this respect, indisputably a comedy.

Isabella’s answer to the Duke’s proposal remains unheard, however; while comic order would dictate that she will accept his offer of marriage, Isabella has sought to devote herself to life in a religious order, and she is not allowed to state her own inclinations and will regarding her fate before the curtain falls. Measure for Measure is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” and this gap where Isabel’s answer should be is simply its last little bit of trouble. Unlike Much Ado or Twelfth Night, whose dissonant notes ultimately do not threaten the overall harmony of their narratives, Measure for Measure is neat only in its comic ending; the play in general presents a world full of corruption, hypocrisy and misrule.

It is unsurprising that this play takes place in a Catholic setting. By the time it was first performed, in late 1604, Catholic states and countries had become bywords in England for excess, corruption and licentiousness. Ironically, they had also become home to a type of woman of which the English had increasingly dim memories: the nun, a figure dedicated to chastity and a life largely free from the immediate rule of men. The notion of a permanently unmarried woman was foreign to the English by the time of James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth I just the year before Measure’s debut. No convents, in the traditional Catholic sense, existed in England by this time, and there was no standing in law for a woman who was not under the protection of a father/guardian or husband, with the exception of widows (who often enjoyed an autonomy that made many nervous – but that’s another story). By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the idea that every woman should be married had taken deep root in both social and religious terms in England; Isabella’s change in status from postulant to bride, while sudden and strange to us, would doubtless have been greeted with satisfaction by Shakespeare’s audience, just as it sorted well with his comic ending. (In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, by Shakespeare’s erstwhile rival Robert Greene, Margaret undergoes a similar conversion, albeit of her own free will, from would-be nun to Lord Lacy’s wife.)

Shakespeare presents this Catholic Vienna as dark, literally. Aside from just a few scenes played in the daylight (including the play’s final comic resolution), we are often confined to interiors, including Angelo’s office and, for a goodly chunk of time, a prison. Vienna is also a place in which a young postulant is greeted at the very door of her convent with an oblique question about her virginity: “Hail, virgin, if you be, as those cheek-roses / Proclaim you are no less!” Here, a young woman’s sexual status is signalled less by her context – in this city, even a convent may be a home of corruption in the very young – than by her appearance: those rosy cheeks betray no sign of (sexually transmitted) disease. This healthy young woman is, of course, Isabella, whose uprightness leads her to worry that the rule of the Poor Claires whose order she seeks to join may not be strict enough for her taste. Her severity is perhaps a reaction to a world in which her own brother, Claudio, urges her to turn away from her chosen path and, in her view, endanger her soul by sleeping with a stranger in order to save Claudio’s earthly life – which, in turn, has been jeopardized by his (pre-marital) sexual activity.

Any collection of human shortcomings may lead to corruption, but in Shakespeare’s Vienna there is a particular and profound problem that goes beyond all else: the head of state, having neglected his legislative duties, has abdicated his rightful position, however briefly, and left another to do the dirty work of cleaning up the moral character of the city. Anyone familiar with King Lear, or any number of Shakespeare’s history plays, will have an idea of how he presents the matter of the negligent, lazy or self-indulgent ruler. If chaos is kept at bay by order and (as it was perceived at the time) a high moral tone – or at least the persistent appearance thereof – then those born to positions of power and privilege are responsible both for embodying these principles and imposing them on their subjects. Instead of embracing his role, Duke Vincentio delivers affairs of state into the hands of the icy Angelo. He also assumes the habit of a friar, thus deceiving people into confessing to and otherwise confiding in him, and proceeds to play the voyeur within his own little realm throughout the play, inserting himself into intrigues in an end-justifies-the-means sort of way.

The low-born characters in the play reveal to us even more about the disorder into which Vienna has descended over those nineteen years of the Duke’s weak rule. Shakespeare presents us with bawds and madams, self-important low-level lawmen, executioners – all of them operating within a system that is so dysfunctional that a notorious criminal can stave off his own execution simply by refusing to be executed. The state is impotent – and Duke Vincentio’s refusal to deal with things himself leaves many of these humble folk threatened by Angelo’s draconian impositions.

The better-born characters vary in their degree of moral ambiguity and fortitude. Vincentio is ultimately to be seen as a force for good and order – he does engineer that harmonious ending – but he is morally troubling and does not, frankly, inspire tremendous confidence that Vienna will change greatly under his renewed rule. Indeed, he will not even punish Angelo for his blatant abuse of power, letting him off with “Lord Angelo perceives he’s safe; / Methinks I see a quickening in his eye. / Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well.” Angelo’s actions in the piece certainly leave him open to the charge of being a villain: a cold, amoral hypocrite who breaks promises and manipulates women with little hesitation, and whose only punishment will be marriage. Claudio, while essentially benign, is not exactly a role model for strength of character, and Lucio can be seen as simply slimy. Both Juliet and Mariana are sympathetic figures, but they are largely passive and put-upon, at least until they receive some direction. Among the principals in Measure, only Isabel is both uncompromised and some sort of agent in the story and her own life, at least until the end of the play.

Just how Measure for Measure became a “problem play” has been the focus of much speculation, including one theory that posits that the playwright Thomas Middleton altered and adapted the play after Shakespeare’s death. It is unlikely that we will ever know just why this play is the rich and strange thing that it is, but its dark materials will continue to provide us with much to consider on stage.

Kel Pero, PhD, is an editor, writer and actor, and former university instructor in English literature and theatre.




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