Measure for Measure
Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Nature template (Sonnet numbers)
Shakespeare’s philosophy, articulated in the Sonnets of 1609, has not been
appreciated and only barely suspected over the last 400 years. The prevailing
biblical and Platonic paradigms have kept thousands of enquiring thespians,
academics and even the best poets in the language from understanding the
Sonnet philosophy. The application of inappropriate paradigms has caused
perennial problems for the interpretation of the poems and plays.
When the poems and plays are interpreted according to the traditional
Platonic/Christian paradigm, the paradigm validates only those aspects of
the works that seem to correspond to its dogmas. Since the philosophy of
the poems and plays provides a definitive critique of such dogmas, ironically
the paradigm is only favourable towards those parts of the works that
include the dogmas for the purpose of criticism. As the inadequate dogmas
are embedded within a play or poem based on natural logic, the remainder
of the work appears problematic to traditional idealist expectations. This has
been particularly the case with the so called ‘problem plays’ written around
1599 to 1604.
Most of the objections in the literature to Shakespeare’s works are due
to the application of the inappropriate paradigms. From the evidence of the
prefaces and poems written either at the time the plays were first published
or later in the Folio by those who knew Shakespeare when he was alive, there
was a degree of empathy with his aims (see Volume 1, Appendices). But,
by the middle of the seventeenth century and then into the eighteenth
century, pedantic scholars such as Samuel Johnson were denouncing aspects
of the plays they could not comprehend or sanction. The reception of the
works has improved only gradually. The philosophic critique of the inadequacies
of Platonic/Christian ideas over the last 200 years has seen a greater
acceptance of plays once considered foul or corrupt.
While the plays are now treated much more sympathetically, their
inherent philosophy has remained a mystery. The attitude of commentators
to the Sonnets is symptomatic of the problem. Generally, the 1609 edition
is now accepted as authorial, but the commentators’ unwillingness to
countenance the presence of a philosophy still prevails. The commentaries
in this volume offer the first appreciation of the plays and poems from the
vantage of the Sonnet philosophy.
Shakespeare first gave expression to the philosophy in the two long
poems of 1593/4, and in Love’s Labour’s Lost of 1598 and provided a precise
summary in The Phoenix and the Turtle of 1601. Because he gave the definitive
expression of the philosophy in the Sonnets in 1609, there should be
evidence in the plays from 1598 onward of his continuing deliberations. The
period corresponds to the dates for the plays considered problematic.
Of the ‘problem’ plays, Measure for Measure (from around 1604) was
derided for centuries, and has been acted regularly only in the last half
century. Its favourable reception has been based largely on its success before
a modern audience. But its content still incites confusion and equivocation
in commentators. The roles of the Duke and Isabella cause particular unease,
as does the resolution of the final scene.
Ironically, the characters in Measure for Measure that arouse most
condemnation first attract and then repel commentators. The commentators’
conditioning by the traditional paradigm puts them at odds with
Shakespeare’s natural logic. No other play begins with a nun, albeit a
novice, as the leading female who, at the play’s end, unceremoniously
sloughs off the religious habit for the natural life. Shakespeare, in the
period after The Phoenix and the Turtle and before the rigorous critique of
idealism in the Sonnets, wrote a play that could not be more specific in
identifying the illogicalities of biblical-based dogma and simultaneously
suggest a resolution in natural logic.
To get some idea of the antipathy the play has generated from those who
have wanted to acknowledge Shakespeare as a great writer without wishing to
accept the content evident in his works, a few remarks from the 1922
Cambridge edition of the play are instructive. The editor, Sir Arthur Quiller-
Couch, comments that, ‘striking play though it be, genius does not manage
to pull it through’. So, he asks, ‘What is wrong with this play?’ Not willing to
address the inadequacy in his own beliefs he questions Shakespeare’s motives:
‘is there, then, some lurking dishonesty in this play – something artistically or
morally untrue’. The editor objects to ‘holy Isabel’ introducing the bed-trick,
and to the Duke’s condemnation of Angelo for Claudio’s ‘death’ that he
claims cheapens the ‘prerogative “likest God’s” of which so many fine things
have been so truly said in the course of the drama’.
The editor then affects ‘honesty’ when he says of the ‘problem plays’ that
‘if they arrive at being comedies it is through fire; while we confess moreover
that they worry us and, if we are honest, that they worry us because we
understand them imperfectly’. But, he again places the blame on Shakespeare:
‘Somewhere the author has allowed his thoughts to be confused, or his insight
has undergone a cloud. We have, then, to ask if Shakespeare’s judgment was
perchance unhinged during this while’. The problem is so acute for the
inadequacy of the editor’s paradigm he resorts to suggesting the ‘dark lady’ of
the Sonnets was responsible for the ‘psychological’ lapse.
The denigration of the Sonnets, and particularly the Mistress sonnets, to
mere psychology by generations of editors, has been a cover for the
psychology of the apologetics that has defended the inadequacies of the
Platonic/Christian paradigm. Once the psychological immaturity of the
traditional paradigm is addressed, as it is consistently in the Sonnets, the
psychological projection by the editors and others is evident. The popularity
of Measure for Measure with modern audiences suggests the time may be near
when the idealistic self-deceit fostered by the traditional paradigm can go
the way of Isabella’s ‘cold’ nunnery.
So Measure for Measure, besides being a play intermediate between The Phoenix and the Turtle and the Sonnets, is particularly suited for examining
the development of Shakespeare’s philosophy. Like The Phoenix and the Turtle,
it specifically addresses the gulf between Shakespeare’s natural logic and the
inadequacies of idealistic belief.
Analysis of Measure for Measure
When Duke Vincentio takes the stage in Measure for Measure, he assumes
command of the drama from beginning to end. His role is similar to that
of Prospero in the Tempest who resolves the injustices that have afflicted life
in Milan by temporarily isolating the protagonists on a ‘magical island’. In
the Tempest Shakespeare provides a model for the application of natural logic
to resolve a social/political dilemma. By removing the participants from their
normal environs, he is able to give them a crash course to realign their thinking
with natural logic.
The drama on the ‘magical’ island is psychological in that the ‘magical’
processes Prospero employs have efficacy only on the island. The island is
a metaphor for the internal operations of the mind. It provides an opportunity
to address the personae of the mind that are at odds with natural
everyday activities. It re-orientates the mental faculties of persons who
should be in a consistent logical relation to nature. The return to Milan
signals the end of the psychological recovery programme and the beginning
of its application in the world.
Like the temporary removal of the characters from Milan to Prospero’s
island, in Measure for Measure the Duke assumes ad hoc the role of a Friar
to show how the religious expectations of a community should be managed
to overcome idealistic excesses. The Duke remedies the injustices within
Vienna by assuming an identity that outwardly manifests the Christian status
quo. He disguises himself as a ‘Friar’ to demonstrate the role idealised
religious belief should play in a society. Shakespeare applies the logic given
expression in sonnet 119 where evil is cured by administering a controlled
dose of the same evil. He shows how to correct the psychological problems
associated with the illogicalities of Christian dogma.
In the Tempest and Measure for Measure, events that occur on Prospero’s
magic island or under the direction of the Duke as Friar are also events in
the psychology of the mind. All the characters in the plays are both persons
in the world and personae in the mind. The events that happen in the city
of Vienna in Measure for Measure gain their maximum effect as drama because
Shakespeare faithfully represents their equivalents in the logic of the mind
and institutes a resolution consistent with the natural logic of truth and
beauty or the dynamic of understanding.
Commentators, who struggle with the irony that a play by Shakespeare
both attracts and repulses them, experience the unavoidable appeal of
Shakespeare’s natural logic at the same time as the natural logic challenges
the traditional dogmas and institutions on which their overwrought idealistic
expectations are based. Their difficulties are not surprising considering
that the logical consistency between persons and personae in Shakespeare’s
philosophy has no precedent in literature, and is only hinted at in the early
part of the twentieth century by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who
attempted to reconcile the body and the mind.
The Sonnet philosophy, with its critique of the idealised male pride in
the Master Mistress sequence, and with its acknowledgment of the natural
wisdom of the Mistress, provides the logical basis for the investigation of
the problems with idealism encountered in Measure for Measure. Although
no commentator has understood the Sonnet philosophy before its presentation
in these volumes, it is still a scandal that they blame Shakespeare for
the difficulties they have with the plays.
Shakespeare’s play differs from its Italian sources and other versions by
casting the ‘heroine’ Isabella as a nun. She begins the play as a novice who
is about to take her final vows and counterpoints the role of the Duke who
disguises himself as a Friar to better conduct the progress of the play. The
Duke guides Vienna away from institutionalised chastity and sexual excesses
toward a society based in natural logic. When unworldly Isabella unexpectedly
becomes the advocate for her brother’s sexual transgressions, she
discovers that her unnatural idealism incites Angelo to sexual excess.
Shakespeare provides the Duke with insights similar to those articulated
by the Poet in the Sonnets, except the Duke lacks Shakespeare’s ability to
write mythic poetry and drama. His insight is sufficient so that when he
relinquishes power, before Claudio’s arrest for fornication, he anticipates
the consequences for Angelo and Isabella. And the effectiveness of the
Duke’s intervention as Friar leads eventually to a conclusion consistent with
Significantly, the only character in the play the Duke cannot communicate
with rationally is Barnardine the murderer. His attempts to
reason with Barnardine fail because the convicted murderer’s many near
execution experiences give him a wholly intuitive (and somewhat drunken)
appreciation of the natural logic of life and death. He does not respond
to reason because, unlike the Duke (and Shakespeare), he has not arrived
at his realisation of natural logic through a process of reason. Rather he
has sloughed off all outer pretences to be left with the immediacy of
When the action starts the Duke as a persona of Shakespeare speaks first
and at the play’s end speaks last. The Duke initiates the action by stepping
aside from a Vienna that, under his congenial tutelage, has degenerated into
vice and disorder creating a vacuum in which religious idealism has flourished.
He concludes the action when Angelo and Isabella, and Lucio and
the bawd (amongst others) have demonstrated by their idealistic excesses the
logical consequences of Vienna’s state of ‘sin’. By wisely using the various
forces at his disposal, the Duke achieves what he could not expect to achieve
if he acted alone. He restores Vienna to a just society where natural logic
At the beginning of the first scene, the Duke briefs Escalus about his
plan to hand him the instruments of Government. He acknowledges Escalus’
greater insight into the ‘nature of our people’, his understanding of the
‘City’s Institutions’, and his appreciation of the ‘Terms for Common Justice’.
In giving the ‘Commission’ to Escalus he recognises someone who ‘would
not…warp’. Even the name Escalus (E-scalus) conveys his ‘disinterest’ in
‘scaling’ the heights of power. Throughout the play Escalus’ language is
largely perfunctory, he talks in clichés and proverbs, and facilitates the
conversations of others. He is a valued bureaucrat, trusted not to suffer pride
Escalus could not take over all the Duke’s functions as that would require
political judgment and social management based in a philosophy of the
world. Escalus’ speech lacks the appropriate engaged words such as ‘nature’,
‘pregnant’, and ‘Organs’, which the Duke’s opening speech contains. At
most, he engages in bawdy repartee, as in his later response to Pompey’s use
of the word ‘bum’.
To further achieve his philosophic purpose the Duke requires the services
of an egotistical male who thinks he is made for power. He requires a man
whose puritanical ambitions can be focused on Vienna’s sexual malaise and
religious excesses. He asks Escalus what he thinks of Lord Angelo, a man
he has ‘elected with special soul’ to address the problem of Vienna’s ‘soul’.
Escalus’ response demonstrates his inability to acknowledge the potential
duplicity beneath Angelo’s idealised facade.
If any in Vienna be of worth
Instead the Duke has ‘lent him our terror, dressed him with our love’,
and acknowledges Angelo’s evil within goodness necessary to ensure the
success of the Duke’s plan. Angelo’s name captures the duplicity in his
attitude revealed in the play. His name begins with ‘angel’ ends in ‘o’, the
letter for nothing or naught with its erotic reference to the female sexual
organ. The idealistic male Angelo carries within his name the logical conditions
for his recovery. (Shakespeare repeats the idea in the structure of the
Sonnets where the Master Mistress sequence can be read as the shape of a
penis facing the lunar circle of the Mistress. See Volume 1.)
To undergo such ample grace, and honour,
It is Lord Angelo. (1.1.25-7)
When the Duke greets Lord Angelo he addresses him directly as
‘Angelo’, signaling his intention to take him at his name. He says that there
is an aspect of Angelo’s life that, to the Duke as an observer, fully unfolds
Angelo’s name is ‘a kind of Character’ that reveals the style of his ‘life’
as an idealist (Angel) with a latent sexual propensity (o) that is obvious to
an ‘observer’ like the Duke/Shakespeare. However, Angelo’s role in the play
is not just about his personal ‘Character’. He symbolises the whole ‘history’
of excessive Platonic/Christian idealism. In him the history of such
‘Character’ ‘fully unfolds’. In the play he does not belong to himself.
There is a kind of Character in thy life,
That to th’observer, doth thy history
Fully unfold: (1.1.32-5)
Thy self, and thy belongings
The play will demonstrate that Angelo’s idealism, which he holds to be
a virtue (as does the niggard idealistic youth of the increase sonnets) should
not be wasted on himself but put to use to reveal its logical role in ‘life’.
The ideal state, as with ‘heaven’, is not something that should exist for itself
but like a torch light not itself but others.
Are not thine own so proper, as to waste
Thy self upon thy virtues; they on thee: (1.1.35-7)
Heaven doth with us, as we, with Torches do,
‘Heaven’ cannot logically be self-contained because ‘spirits’ cannot be
made fine except through ‘issues’ or increase.
Not light them for themselves: For if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not: (1.1.38-41)
Spirits are not finely touched
The Duke’s first words to Angelo, and his first significant statement of
the play, establish the logical priority of ‘issue’ over ‘spirits’ (or increase over
the attributes of the mind as truth and beauty). In the same line he mentions
‘nature’ who is the ‘thrifty goddess’ who determines for herself the value of
those who are owed ‘thanks’ if they have ‘used’ their capacity for ‘issue’ rather
than hoard it. As in the Sonnets where Nature, the sovereign mistress, brings
the idealistic excesses of the youth to ‘Audit’, nature the thrifty goddess,
and not God (heaven or spirit), is the one who makes the final judgment
about the youth’s adherence to natural logic.
But to fine issues:nor nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence,
But like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks, and use; (1.1.41-6)
The Duke prefigures Angelo’s ‘Commission’. He ‘bends’ his ‘speech’ to
one who will unavoidably ‘advertise’ the Duke’s ‘part’ or role in the drama.
But I do bend my speech
While the Duke is away, Angelo will learn to be a ‘full’ person, and
become like the Duke (‘our self ’). He will come to see why it is necessary
to ‘live in thy tongue, and heart’, and to be able to justly dispense ‘Mortality
and Mercy’. The words ‘tongue, and heart’ bring together the faculties of
the mind and the senses (truth and beauty), but they also refer to the sexual
propensity and the capacity for love. Angelo’s lesson, and the lesson for all
mind-bound idealists, will be a lesson in the natural logic of life.
To one that can my part in him advertise;
Hold therefore, Angelo:
In our remove, be thou at full, our self:
Mortality and Mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue, and heart: (1.1.46-51)
Shakespeare begins Measure for Measure by stating the logical conditions of
life against which idealistic beliefs are to be measured. Venus and Adonis,
Lucrece, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Phoenix and the Turtle, were early essays in
the philosophy articulated in the Sonnets, which presents the definitive
critique of traditional beliefs. It is not surprising then that within the first few
lines of Measure for Measure the Duke articulates the same logical critique of
‘virtues’ or ‘heaven’, which are ‘wasted’ if they are not based in action in the
world. And the model for activity in the world is the increase dynamic out of
nature. It is the logical basis for truth and beauty, or ‘tongue, and heart’.
The role of the Duke in the play is similar to that of the Poet in the
Sonnets. For the first time in a play, Shakespeare creates a role in which the
leading character has sufficient insight into natural logic to take complete
command of the events. The Duke has both the oversight and the insight
exercised by the Poet of the Sonnets who has reconciled his masculine pride
with the priority of the female. The Poet articulates natural logic in the form
of poetry. In Measure for Measure the Duke stage-manages the whole drama.
He does ‘advertise’ his ‘part’ (1.1.47) as he prepares to leave the hesitant
Angelo to execute his ‘Commission’.
Because the Duke wishes to use Angelo’s vulnerable idealistic egotism,
he assures him that any doubts he has will be addressed.
No more evasion:
In assuring Angelo, he also conveys the expected outcome.
We have with a leavened, and prepared choice
Proceeded to you; therefore take your honours:
Our haste from hence is of so quick condition,
That it prefers it self, and leaves unquestioned
Matters of needful value: (1.1.58-63)
and do look to know
Angelo’s ‘execution’ of his new responsibilities will not be by omission
but by commission. To complete the picture of the degree to which Angelo
is being set up, the Duke describes his decision to absent himself in the image
of a playwright who cannot overtly appear in his own play.
What doth befall you here. So fare you well:
To th’hopeful execution do I leave you,
Of your Commissions. (1.1.65-8)
I love the people,
The distance Angelo has yet to travel in enlightenment is conveyed by
his anodyne farewell to the Duke.
But do not like to stage me to their eyes:
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause, and Aves vehement:
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it. (1.1.76-81)
The heavens give safety to your purposes. (1.1.82)
The first scene of Act 1 introduces the Duke whose all-seeing eye is
aligned with the ‘thrifty goddess’ nature, and introduces Angelo whose blind
eye is his over-virtuous ‘soul’. Their interaction is set against the conventional
background provided by Escalus’ ‘science’ and ‘Common Justice’.
With the representatives of natural logic (the Duke) and traditional
idealism (Angelo) introduced in the first scene, Shakespeare then characterises
the disjunction between orthodox ‘Religion’ and natural logic in the
second scene. In a witty exchange between Lucio and two gentlemen, he
contrasts the illogicality of obeying the ‘ten Commandments’ with the
natural logic of sexual relations between those who wish to procreate
regardless of their marital status.
Lucio opens with the conundrum that if ‘all the Dukes’were unable to
reach agreement with the King of Hungary, they will eat him.
If the Duke, with the other Dukes, come not to
In response, the first gentleman wishes for the idealised ‘peace of heaven’
rather than the eat-or-be-eaten scenario implied by the King of Hungary’s
name. The second gentleman chimes in with ‘Amen’.
composition with the King of Hungary, why then all the
Dukes fall upon the King. (1.2.97-9)
Lucio points out the ‘Sanctimonious’ inconsistency of their hopes. They
are like a pirate who rearranges the Ten Commandments to obtain his ends.
Thou conclud’st like the Sanctimonious Pirate,
If the pirate ignores the commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ to achieve
his aims, he is little different from the soldier who ignores the
commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ when he says ‘Grace’ and ‘prays for
that went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but
scraped one out of the Table. (1.2.104-6)
Why? ’twas a commandment to command
The second gentleman claims he ‘never heard any Soldier dislike’ saying
such thanksgiving. Lucio says he believes him but only because he doubts
the second gentleman was ever at such a thanksgiving. The second
gentleman insists that he had been present for ‘Grace’ at least a dozen times.
the Captain and all the rest from their functions: they
put forth to steal: There’s not a Soldier of us all, that
in the thanksgiving before meat, do relish the petition
well, that prays for peace. (1.2.108-12)
Shakespeare critiques the inconsistency of a worldview based on
adherence to Commandments and dogmas that do not take account of
natural logic. The principle is universal. It occurs in ‘metre’, and in ‘any
proportion, any language, or in any Religion’. ‘Grace’, for instance, is traditionally
considered to exist above all ‘controversy’. Because it has no purchase
on the world, Lucio says that, ‘despite of all Grace’, the first gentleman is
‘a wicked villain’.
The first gentleman then counters that they are cut from the same
Well: there went but a pair of shears
Lucio agrees, but with the distinction that the first gentleman is the
offcut, and he the ‘Velvet’. Lucio suggests that the first gentleman’s focus
on Grace and Heaven are distractions from the natural basis of true understanding.
With an erotic play on ‘Kersey’ and ‘Velvet’, the first gentleman
‘speaks feelingly’ of the negative consequences of Lucio’s embracement of
life. He suggests Lucio will get ‘French Velvet’ or venereal disease. Lucio
reverses the compliment, saying that the first gentleman’s ‘speech’ is as painful
as any venereal disease. His ‘confession’ of an aversion to natural processes
may ensure his bodily health, but Lucio refuses to drink from his glass to
avoid being infected by the gentleman’s diseased mind.
between us. (1.2.123-4)
The first gentleman confesses his ‘wrong’, and the second gentleman
agrees he is wrong whether he has a disease of the body or not. His wrong
is in having a disease of the mind.
First Gentleman. I think I have done myself wrong, have I not?
When the Bawd (Mistress Overdone) enters, Lucio greets her as ‘Madam
Mitigation’ and confesses to having ‘purchased many diseases under her
Roof’. Just as the ‘ten Commandments’ and ‘Grace’ will lead to a sick mind
if applied illogically, sexual excess without regard to natural logic leads to
a sick body. Lucio represents the second possibility. He implies it ‘comes
Second Gentleman. Yes, that thou hast; whether thou art
tainted, or free. (1.2.135-7)
Second Gent. To what, I pray?
Lucio accepts he is judged by the pains (‘Dolours’) caused by the ‘French
crown’ or symptoms of sexual disease. The first gentleman takes advantage
of Lucio’s confession to claim that he, by comparison, is ‘sound’. But Lucio
insists that the gentleman’s disease, while not of the flesh, is of the ‘bones’.
His head bone and other bones are ‘hollow’ because of his ‘Impiety’ or
inappropriate use of Religious observances such as ‘Praying’. (The exchange
confuses editors because they are not willing to acknowledge Shakespeare’s
combined critique of both piety and whoring.)
Second Gent. To three thousand Dolours a year.
First Gent. Ay, and more.
Lucio. A French crown more.
First Gent. Thou art always figuring diseases in me; but
thou art full of error, I am sound.
Lucio. Nay, not (as one would say) healthy: but so
sound, as things that are hollow; thy bones are hollow;
Impiety has made a feast of thee. (1.2.141-50)
Significantly, the Bawd is given the role of announcing the presence of
Claudio. Her profession at least is not in complete denial of increase, as is
the excessive piety of institutional celibacy. She reveals that Claudio is to be
beheaded within three days for getting ‘Madam Juliet with child’. Lucio and
the two gentlemen depart ‘to learn the truth’ about Claudio’s fate.
In witty repartee with the Clown, the Bawd discovers that Angelo has
ordered all the ‘houses in the Suburbs of Vienna must be pluck’d down’.
The Bawd is concerned for her trade, but the clown assures her she will
not ‘lack clients’. He uses the image of the ‘eyes’ in relation to her sexual
parts when he suggests ‘you have almost worn your eyes out in the service’
of whoredom. Shakespeare makes frequent use in the plays and particularly
the Sonnets of the image of the eyes to refer to both the visual organs and
In the 1623 Folio there are five scenes in Act 1. Some editions reduce
the number of scenes to four. The original scene 3, which begins when
Claudio and Juliet appear on stage on the way to prison, is seen as a continuation
of scene 2 in at least the Oxford and Cambridge editions and even
in the Alexander text which models itself on the Folio. The change disrupts
Shakespeare’s deliberate and separate introduction of the five components
of his play. Scene 1 introduces the Duke and Angelo, scene 2 the disjunction
between dogma and natural logic, scene 3 introduces the two lovers Claudio
and Juliet. Scene 4 then introduces the Duke’s role in guiding the action
disguised as a friar, and scene 5 completes the process with the meeting
between Lucio and Isabella in the cloisters. And anticipating the match of
Isabella and the Duke at the play’s end, Isabella has the last word in scene 5
to complement the Duke who had the first word in scene 1.
Most editors are confused about the meaning of some of the passages in
scene 2. Their confusion leads them to interfere with the structure of the
first act, which was designed to clearly delineate the principle players and
the basic content. The interference destroys the clarity of Shakespeare’s
presentation of the inconsistencies of traditional dogma when compared to
his natural logic.
Claudio and Juliet enter in scene 3, and after a brief interchange with
the Provost, Claudio spends the rest of the scene in conversation with Lucio.
While his relationship with Juliet is the focus of the dialogue Juliet does
not speak. Her presence though is crucial to the scene. The obviousness of
her pregnancy, which led to their arrest and threat of execution, speaks
volumes. The focus on Juliet’s pregnancy to Claudio in scene 3 is crucial to
establishing Shakespeare’s natural logic based in nature and increase. The
precedent of having a character pregnant before the action begins was
established in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The logic of the Sonnets that deal with
truth and beauty presupposes nature and increase. The theme is close to
Shakespeare’s heart as he and Anne were prenuptially pregnant.
Claudio challenges the Provost’s decision to exhibit him in public but
the Provost explains it was Angelo’s idea. This leads Claudio to reflect on
the correlation between the ‘demi-god’ Angelo and the God of ‘heaven’.
Thus can the demi-god (Authority)
The will of God in ‘heaven’ is exercised without objectivity and on a
whim. It wills what its wishes to will or not, and ‘still’ it is called ‘just’.
Angelo as the self-proclaimed idealist does not differ from God in the nature
of his decisions. He makes them not according to natural justice but
according to an ideal, which has no normative relation to the world.
Make us pay down, for our offence, by weight
The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will,
On whom it will not (so) yet still ’tis just. (1.3.211-4)
The editors call Shakespeare’s statement of natural logic from the mouth
of Claudio an insoluble crux or even a daring blasphemy on Claudio’s part
to draw attention to his unjust treatment. The injustice though lies in traditional
blind obedience to illusory ideals as Shakespeare points out over and
again in the plays and Sonnets.
Lucio asks Claudio the reason for his arrest or ‘restraint’. Claudio blames
the corruption evident in Vienna (which the Duke will describe in the next
scene). He is the victim of the excess of ‘liberty’ allowed the citizens under
the Duke’s reign that Angelo has been conscripted to correct.
From too much liberty, (my Lucio) Liberty
Claudio recognises that he has been caught as a consequence of the
excesses of ‘liberty’ and ‘fast’. The sexual license and the prevalence of
celibacy in Vienna are symptoms of too much ‘Scope’. Both are ‘evil’when
they begin to usurp natural law. Lucio acknowledges Claudio’s wisdom
under duress but, on reflection, admits that he also would as willingly (‘lief ’)
have the affectations or ‘foppery’ of freedom as have the reality or ‘mortality’
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every Scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint: Our Natures do pursue
Like Rats that ravin down their proper Bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die. (1.3.216-21)
If I could speak so wisely under an arrest, I
Claudio affirms that his position is somewhere between sexual license
and selfish piety. Considering the harmless nature of his ‘offence’, it is
extraordinary that just to ‘speak’ of it should be treated as a further offence.
After all it is not ‘murder’ and does not deserve to be called ‘lechery’.
would send for certain of my Creditors: and yet, to say
the truth, I had as lief have the foppery of freedom, as
the mortality of imprisonment: what’s thy offence,
Claudio. What (but to speak of) would offend again.
Claudio explains the circumstances of Juliet’s pregnancy.
Lucio. What, is’t murder?
Claudio. Call it so. (1.3.227-31)
Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
As far as Claudio is concerned, so long as he and Juliet were in accord
to be man and wife, he was justified in ‘possessing’ her in ‘bed’. He
considered the outward ceremony of marriage a formality, as was the transference
of the ‘Dower’ that was in the keeping of her friends. They hid their
‘Love’ from those friends intending to tell them when the ‘Time’was right.
But their plans were forestalled when their relationship was revealed by
Juliet’s evident pregnancy.
I got possession of Julietas’ bed,
You know the Lady, she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward Order. This we came not to,
Only for propagation of a Dower
Remaining in the Coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our Love
Till Time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With Character too gross, is writ on Juliet. (1.3.237-47)
Lucio interjects to assure himself Claudio means ‘with child’. Claudio
then explains the circumstances that led him to be arrested.
Unhappily, even so.
When Lucio suggests Claudio send for the Duke he says he has done so
but the Duke is not to be found. Instead Claudio asks Lucio to approach
his sister who is about to become a nun.
And the new Deputy, now for the Duke,
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
Or whether that the body public, be
A horse whereon the Governor did ride,
Who newly in the Seat, that it may know
He can command; lets it straight feel the spur:
Whether the Tyranny be in his place,
Or in his Eminence that fills it up
I stagger in: But this new Governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have (like un-scoured armour) hung by th’wall
So long, that nineteen Zodiacs have gone around,
And none of them been worn; and for a name
Now puts the drowsy and neglected Act
Freshly on me: ’tis surely for a name. (1.3.249-64)
I prithee (Lucio) do me this kind service:
Lucio says he is willing to do anything to save a life condemned for
This day, my sister should the Cloister enter,
And there receive her approbation.
Acquaint her with the danger of my state,
Implore her, in my voice, that she make friends
To the strict deputy: bid her self assay him,
I have great hope in that: for in her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect,
Such as move men: beside, she hath prosperous Art
When she will play with reason, and discourse,
And well she can persuade. (1.3.269-79)
In scene 1, Shakespeare introduced the contrast between the Duke’s
judgment based in natural logic and Angelo’s idealistic self-regard. Then, in
scene 2, he introduced natural logic’s challenge to contradictory doctrines
and dogmas. In scene 3 Claudio and Juliet are introduced with their
prenuptial pregnancy, which grounds the plot in the increase argument of
the first 14 sonnets. Shakespeare concludes scene 3 with reference to
Isabella’s intended celibacy, which will be severely critiqued in the Acts
In scene 4, the Duke reappears. He discusses with Friar Thomas the
decision to temporarily take on the guise of a friar to guide the action of
the play to its logical conclusion. Shakespeare gives the Duke the habit of
a monk to demonstrate the appropriate role of religion in the correction
of society’s ills. The Duke’s removal of the habit in the final act, and his
offer of a relationship to Isabella, expresses Shakespeare’s logical appreciation
that once a problem is resolved through the resort to religious devices the
religious habit can be put aside. Shakespeare’s demonstrates how Angelo’s
idealistic self-regard, Isabella’s flight to chastity, and the religious habit,
can be used to critique the inconsistencies of idealised values relative to
The Duke’s first words to Thomas answer a previous ‘thought’ of the
Friar about the Dukes intentions.
No: holy Father, throw away that thought,
The Duke counters the Friar’s expectation that he intends to go into
retreat. He challenges his credulousness that the ‘dribbling dart of Love’ or
the sexual basis of love cannot pierce the ‘compleat bosom’ or the resolute
idealism of the likes of Angelo (and by implication any idealistic belief). The
Duke asks for ‘secret harbour’ because his purpose is ‘more grave and
wrinkled’ than the selfish aims of ‘burning youth’ where sexual energy is
expended in ignorance of natural logic.
Believe not that the dribbling dart of Love
Can pierce a compleat bosom: why, I desire thee
To give me secret harbour, hath a purpose
More grave, and wrinkled, than the aims, and ends
Of burning youth. (1.4.290-5)
The Friar asks if the Duke can discuss his ‘purpose’. He responds that
the Friar knows how he loves the ‘life removed’ from those places where
‘youth, and cost, and witless bravery’ are expended. In the Sonnets not only
is the witless bravery of youth criticised but also the cost of ‘religious love’.
Measure for Measure critiques both sexual selfishness and religious selfishness,
as they both entertain the same disdain for natural logic.
My holy Sir, none better knows than you
The Duke’s purpose then, in disguising himself, is twofold. He wants to
demonstrate the hidden evil in Angelo’s ‘stricture and firm abstinence’, and
he wants to redress the laxity in the policing of Vienna’s ‘Statutes and Laws’.
How I have ever loved the life removed
And held in idle price, to haunt assemblies
Where youth, and cost, witless bravery keeps. (1.4.297-300)
I have delivered to Lord Angelo
The Friar suggests that if the Duke had ‘unloosed the tied-up Justice’
himself, the effect would have been more ‘dreadful’ than giving the task to
Angelo. The Duke readily admits that for fourteen years ‘we have let slip’
the ‘headstrong weeds’ of Vienna. But it would be ‘too dreadful’ for him
to act since the laxity was his ‘fault’. (Commentators worry about the
discrepancy between the ‘nineteen zodiacs mentioned earlier, and the
fourteen years. There is no reason to expect the Duke to be exact about a
period of decline.)
(A man of stricture and firm abstinence)
My absolute power, and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me traveled to Poland,
(For so I have strewed it in the common ear)
We have strict Statutes, most biting Laws
(The needful bits and curbs for headstrong weeds,)
Which for this fourteen years, we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown Lion in a Cave,
That goes not out to prey:Now, as fond Fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick in their Children’s sight,
For terror, not to use: in time the rod
More mocked, than feared: so our Decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty, plucks Justice by the nose;
The Baby beats the Nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum. (1.4.301-21)
I do fear: too dreadful:
Because the Duke knows Angelo will prove to be a ‘Seemer’, he is determined
to use his guise as a friar to behold Angelo’s ‘sway’. The Sonnet
philosophy anticipates that those who divorce themselves from the logic of
life will reveal the nature of their misplaced idealism when they attempt to
Sith ’twas my fault, to give the people scope,
’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them,
For what I bid them do: For, we bid this be done
When evil deeds have their permissive pass,
And not the punishment: therefore, indeed (my father)
I have on Angelo imposed the office,
Who may in th’ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet, my nature never in the sight
To do in slander: (1.4.326-35)
Lord Angelo is precise,
Scene 4, then, has the Duke reintroduce himself in the guise of a friar
not to validate the traditional values of celibacy but to demonstrate the logic
of increase out of nature. In keeping with the Duke’s intent, in scene 5
Lucio goes to the nunnery to begin the process of liberating Isabella from
the immanent threat of celibacy. On a mission from Claudio and the
pregnant Juliet he brings to a head Shakespeare’s deliberate alignment of the
basic elements of his plot in the 5 scenes of Act 1.
Stands at a guard with Envy: scarce confesses
That his blood flows: or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see
If power change purpose: what our Seemers be. (1.4.342-6)
In the first few lines of scene 5, Isabella declares to her fellow nun that
she wants her ‘privileges’ to be even more ‘strict’ than the usual ‘restraint’.
Shakespeare increases the impact of her eventual refusal to take vows by
evoking here the desperateness of her flight from life in Vienna. Appropriately
Isabella’s companion, the Nun, describes life in the priory as one of
withdrawal from the natural functions of life.
When you have vowed, you must not speak with men,
When Lucio greets Isabella he invokes the denied sexual potential in her
But in the presence of the Prioress;
Then if you speak, you must not show your face;
Or if you show your face, you must not speak: (1.5.360-3)
Hail Virgin, (if you be) as those cheek-Roses
The image of the ‘cheek’ and ‘Roses’ occur throughout the Sonnets and
plays, both in reference to the face and the sexual parts. Lucio’s identification
of Isabella with the Virgin Mary (‘Hail Virgin’), shows that Shakespeare’s
critique of the nunnery is also a critique of the dogma of the Virgin birth
of Christ, which when taken literally is a travesty to the logic of nature and
increase. Modern editors destroy the force of the double critique by inserting
a comma after Hail and removing the capital V from Virgin.
Proclaim you are no less: (1.5.366-7)
Lucio brings Isabella the news of Juliet being with child. For his part he
thinks Claudio should be thanked rather than punished. Lucio then mocks
her pretentious desire to be a nun.
’Tis true; I would not, though ’tis my familiar sin,
Isabella says Claudio ‘blasphemes the good’ as he ‘mocks’ her. Lucio
counters her unnatural beliefs with a fulsome statement of the increase
argument. Her condition leads to a ‘fewness’ at odds with the dynamic of
With Maids to seem the Lapwing, and to jest
Tongue, far from heart: play with all Virgins so:
I hold you as a thing en-skied, and sainted,
By your renouncement, an immortal spirit
And to be talked with in sincerity,
As with a Saint. (1.5.381-7)
Do not believe it: Fewness, and truth; this thus,
Lucio’s experience of the seamier side of life, coupled with the birth of
his child, has given him a regard for natural logic. He has a clear insight into
the Duke’s characteristics, and Angelo’s, which have led to the current crisis.
When Isabella responds that Claudio and Juliet be allowed to ‘marry’ Lucio
points to the dilemma.
Your brother and his lover have embrac’d;
As those that feed, grow full: as blossoming Time
That from the seedness, the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison: even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full Tilth, and husbandry. (1.5.389-94)
This is the point.
The disappearance of the Duke is ‘very strange’ because ‘many gentlemen’
had hope of action from him, particularly as there was an ‘infinite
distance’ between his designs for Vienna and what he actually ‘gave out’.
The disappearance of the Duke makes his elevation of Angelo all the more
intriguing, as he is well known as a puritanical zealot. He suffers from the
same defects as the King in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who puts study and fast over
The Duke is very strangely gone from hence;
Bore many gentlemen (myself being one)
In hand, and hope of action: but we do learn,
By those that know the very Nerves of State,
His giving-out, were of an infinite distance
From his true meant design: (1.5.401-7)
upon his place,
Lucio’s mission is to secure the intercession of Isabella on Claudio’s
(And with full line of his authority)
Governs Lord Angelo;A man, whose blood
Is very snow-broth: one, who never feels
The wanton stings, and motions of the sense;
But doth rebate, and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind: Study and fast
He (to give fear to use, and liberty,
Which have, for long, run-by the hideous law,
As Mice, by Lions) hath picked out an act,
Under whose heavy sense, your brother’s life
Falls into forfeit: he arrests him on it,
And follows close the rigor of the Statute
To make him an example: (1.5.407-20)
all hope is gone,
He assures her that ‘the power she hath’ could move Angelo.
Unless you have the grace, by your fair prayer
To soften Angelo: (1.5.420-2)
when Maidens sue
With Isabella’s agreement they depart, with Isabella closing the first Act
with ‘Good sir, adieu’.
Men give like gods: but when they weep and kneel,
All their petitions, are as freely theirs
As they themselves would owe them. (1.5.436-9)
The difficulties traditional commentators have with Measure for Measure
begin with their inability to appreciate the logical structure Shakespeare lays
down in the first Act. Shakespeare sets out to demonstrate that the inconsistencies
in the biblical mythology can be resolved without a diminution
of mythic depth. By beginning with representatives of the old paradigm, an
idealist, a Friar, and a novice nun, and by interlacing the first Act with the
pregnancy of Claudio and Juliet, he proceeds to show how the mythic sensibility
can survive without distorting its logical relation to nature and
increase. The denigration of aspects of Measure for Measure and the characterisation
of the play as a ‘problem play’ is an indictment of the inadequate
As Act 2 begins, Angelo distinguishes between the Duke’s approach to
the ‘Law’ and his own. If the Duke’s approach was based on ‘custom’ or a
conciliatory attitude, his was going to be based on a ‘terror’ of the Law.
Escalus advises caution to avoid the ignominy of falling from an unfamiliar
height. He would ‘save’ Claudio, partly because of the nobility and virtuousness
of Claudio’s father. And, with insight or foreknowledge, he
challenges Angelo to say whether ‘you had not sometime in your life erred
in this point’ with a similar fault to Claudio’s. Not only is Angelo about to
commit such an offence with Isabella, by the end of the play the psychological
basis of Angelo’s hostility to sexual activity is discovered, when his
failed betrothal to Mariana is revealed.
Angelo escapes Escalus’ question by abstractly rationalising the difference
between being ‘tempted’ and ‘falling’ for temptation. He avoids the implication
that his previous behaviour might lead him to be lenient in sexual
matters when there is a contract between parties. He gives the example of
a jury that may have a thief or two amongst the twelve, yet is still able to
determine the guilt of an accused. As he excuses himself, Angelo ignores
the disproportion in seriousness between consensual sexual relations and
thievery. He uses his disingenuous argument to silence Escalus.
You may not so extenuate his offence,
Escalus gives way to Angelo’s ‘wisdom’. He provides his typically conventional
summary of the situation using colloquialism, proverb and cliché.
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own Judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die. (2.1.478-82)
Well: heaven forgive him; and forgive us all:
When Elbow the constable and two officers enter with Pompey and
Froth under arrest for running a brothel they engage in banter with the idealistic
Angelo that anticipates his duplicitous about-face over Isabella by
inverting a number of Christian commonplaces to reveal their hidden
meanings. Angelo asks Elbow his name and ‘What’s the matter?’ Elbow
identifies himself as the ‘poor Duke’s constable’ who, like the unfortunate
Duke, leans ‘upon Justice’ with his elbow rather than take action.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall:
Some run from brakes of Ice, and answer none,
And some condemned for a fault alone. (2.1.491-4)
The constable mistakenly calls Pompey and Froth ‘two notorious
Benefactors’ rather than malefactors. His slip of the tongue, though,
identifies their profession as having at least a tenuous connection with the
potential for increase in natural logic. Angelo corrects ‘Benefactors’ to
‘Malefactors’ but the distinction is lost on Elbow, who continues his assault
on Angelo’s illogical celibacy by suggesting that ‘good Christians ought to
have’ a freedom from ‘all profanation in the world’. He anticipates that the
‘good Christian’ Angelo, in his dealings with Isabella, will soon reveal his
tendency toward ‘profanation’. Shakespeare’s philosophy predicts selfrighteous
idealists will inevitably switch from goodness to wickedness.
Escalus recognises the point of the constable’s unintended wit.
This comes off well: here’s a wise Officer. (2.1.512)
But Angelo misses the point.
Go to: What quality are they of? (2.1.513)
When Elbow identifies Pompey as a Tapster and a ‘parcel Bawd’ Escalus
takes over the interrogation from Angelo only to discover that Elbow, the
representative of the Law, is hopelessly confused about the guilt of Pompey
and Froth and completely paranoid about the virtue of his own wife.
Through Elbow’s persistent slips of the tongue, Shakespeare shows how
inured in language is the prejudice against sexual activity and how the notions
of ‘heaven’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘honour’, ‘respect’, and ‘Law’ are given unwarranted
regard even in common conversation.
Elbow’s trumped up charges against Pompey and Froth equate to the injustice
of the charges Angelo brings against Claudio and Juliet. Elbow’s
naivety in slandering his wife’s name by suggesting she had been assaulted
by Pompey in the whorehouse is a symptom of the institutional denial of
the priority of the female over the male. When Elbow offers his wife in
evidence, his slip of the tongue reveals an illogical contempt for the natural
role of woman.
My wife Sir? whom I detest before heaven, and
Escalus is perplexed and gets no further sense out of Elbow who thanks
‘heaven’ that the wife he has just slandered is ‘honest’. Elbow reveals the crux
of his confusion when he substitutes ‘Cardinally’ for carnally.
your honour. (2.1.523-4)
Escalus. How? thy wife?
In another slip that reveals his hidden meaning, Elbow calls Pompey an
‘honourable man’ instead of dishonourable. Escalus notes how Elbow
‘misplaces’ his words. Shakespeare parodies by way of ridicule the unavoidable
way in which the natural logic of language reveals the unintended
meaning behind a character’s attempts to convey ideas sympathetic with
idealistic pretensions. Angelo and Escalus’ names reveal the psychology of
their bearers but, in a subtle and even insidious way, the logic of thought
inevitably traps those whose ideas are contrary to natural logic.
Elbow. Ay Sir: whom I thank heaven is an honest
Escalus. Dost thou detest her therefore?
Elbow. I say sir, I will detest myself also, as well as she,
that this house, if it be not a Bawd’s house, it is a pity of her
life, for it is a naughty house.
Escalus. How dost thou know that, Constable?
Elbow. Marry sir, by my wife, who, if she had bin a woman
Cardinally given, might have bin accused in
fornication, adultery, and all uncleanliness there. (2.1.525-35)
Pompey, in defence of the accusation that he has not acted honourably,
points to the rather obvious fact that Elbows wife was ‘great with child’ and
was looking for ‘stewed prunes’ when she visited the Bawd’s house. She
wanted the prunes ‘to save your honour’s reverence’ suggesting, because
prunes were used to protect against venereal disease, that the Constable had
the pox. The problem arose because Froth had bought most of the prunes
leaving only a couple, hence Elbow’s distress. He arrested Pompey and Froth
to save his own reputation and that of his wife, who he sent along to the
Bawd’s house to avoid embarrassing himself.
Escalus wants to conclude the questioning but succeeds only in inciting
a barrage of innuendo on the word ‘come’.
Escalus. Come: you are a tedious fool: to the purpose:
But Angelo, who has heard enough, leaves Escalus with the responsibility
of finding a reason to ‘whip them all’. Instead Escalus finds himself
inciting innuendoes on the word ‘once’. While Shakespeare demonstrates
that all language is based in the logic of the increase out of nature, even
that of supposedly good men such as Angelo, Escalus, and Elbow, he has
Pompey demonstrate Froth’s innocence by an appeal to the absence of ‘harm
in his face’. The determination of guilt or innocence cannot be based on
mere words or looks. The Constable adds to the difficulties with another
unintended pun, which confuses ‘respected’ for ‘suspected’. He tells at least
a partial truth with the slip.
what was done to Elbow’s wife, that he hath cause
to complain of? Come me to what was done to her.
Pompey. Sir, your honour cannot come to that yet.
Escalus. No sir, nor I meant it not.
Pompey. Sir, but you shall come to it by your honour’s
Elbow. First, and it like you, the house is a respected
When Escalus asks which is ‘wiser’ here, ‘Justice or Iniquity’, he acts in
accord with the Duke’s expectations. He is wise enough to recognise the
problem but not sufficiently conversant with natural logic to be able to articulate
the pre-conditions that are evident within the exchange between the
minor characters. Shakespeare reveals the undeniable influence of natural
logic through the language of the minor characters, but demonstrates how
it is also possible to be ‘wise’ yet not philosophic.
house; next, this is a respected fellow; and his Mistress
is a respected woman.
Pompey. By this hand Sir, his wife is a more respected
person than any of us all.
Elbow. Varlet, thou liest; thou liest wicked varlet:
the time is yet to come that she was ever respected with
man, woman, or child.
Pompey. Sir, she was respected with him, before he
married with her.
Escalus. Which is the wiser here? Justice or Iniquity?
Is this true?
Elbow. O thou catiff: O thou varlet: O thou wicked
Hannibal: I respected with her, before I was married
to her? If ever I was respected with her, or she with me,
let not your worship think me the poor Duke’s Officer:
prove this, thou wicked Hannibal, or I’ll have mine
action of batt’ry on thee. (2.1.612-29)
Escalus tells Elbow to free Froth because he needs more than suspicions
to arrest a suspect. Then, when Escalus asks Pompey his trade, the exchange
is reminiscent of the numerology of the Sonnets where the Master Mistress
has the number 9, and the Mistress the number 1.
Escalus. Your Mistress’ name?
When Froth departs, Escalus questions Pompey. He asks his name and
displays wit when he word-plays on ‘Bum’, Pompey’s surname. In return
Pompey shows his common-sense connection to natural logic when he
advises Escalus on the consequences of Angelo’s application of the ‘Law’.
Pompey. Mistress Over-done.
Escalus. Hath she had any more than one husband?
Pompey. Nine, sir:Over-done by the last.
Escalus. Nine? come hither to me, Master Froth. (2.1.647-51)
Escalus. How would you live Pompey? by being a bawd?
Escalus sends Pompey off with a warning not to give further cause for
complaint. He then questions Elbow about his function as Constable and
suggests he finds six or seven other men who may be willing to help with
his duties. When Elbow departs, Escalus tells the Justice of his grief for the
death of Claudio, and consoles himself with a few more homilies. He can
offer no remedy because, unlike the Duke, he does not have a deep insight
into the dynamic of natural logic to right a situation using the appropriate
what do you think of the trade Pompey? is it a lawful
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 too’t
then: if your worship will take order for the drabs and
the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.
Escalus. There is pretty orders beginning I can tell you:
It is but heading, and hanging.
Pompey. If you head, and hang all that offend that way
but for ten year together; you’ll be glad to give out a
Commission for more heads: if this law hold in Vienna
ten year, I’ll rent the fairest house in it after three pence
a Bay: if you live to see this pass, say Pompey
told you so. (2.1.670-89)
Mercy is not it self, that oft looks so,
At the beginning of the second scene Act 2, the Provost recognises the
ludicrousness of the charges against Claudio and the irony that Claudio is
to die for fostering life. He notes the illogicality that ‘all Sects’ down the
‘Ages’, whose beliefs proscribe the logic of increase, must still increase to
Pardon is still the nurse of second woe:
But yet, poor Claudio; there is no remedy. (2.1.727-9)
He hath but as offended in a dream,
When the Provost addresses his concerns directly to Angelo, he invokes
the increase argument stated in sonnet 14, which proscribes the deliberate
rejection of the natural logic of increase because it leads to the ‘doom’ of
truth and beauty, and so of judgment and knowledge. In the Provost’s
experience, after a person is sentenced to death for sexual crimes, they
sometimes repent for their abrogation of natural logic.
All Sects, all Ages smack of this vice, and he
To die for’t? (2.2.737-9)
Lest I might be too rash:
However, Angelo is resolute, responding to the Provost’s concern about
the pregnant Juliet with orders to ‘dispose’ of the ‘fornicatress’ to some ‘more
fitter place’ of ‘needful, but not lavish means’.
Under your good correction, I have seen
When after execution, Judgment hath
Repented o’er his doom. (2.2.745-8)
When Isabella enters with Lucio, she reveals a state of mind still circumscribed
by the proscriptions of the faith that led her to the nunnery, a faith
in which even consensual increase is a ‘vice’. In her equivocation,
Shakespeare captures the unnatural implications of her idealistic piety.
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
Isabella suggests Angelo should condemn the ‘fault’ but not the ‘actor’.
He, though, responds that the fault is already condemned but not yet the
actor. Rebuffed she accedes, but Lucio says she is ‘too cold’ and insists she
try again. Isabella appeals to Angelo’s sense of ‘mercy’by placing mercy above
all the Judge’s attributes, especially if Angelo may once have ‘slipped like’
Claudio. Angelo remains unmoved until Isabella suggests they swap places.
And most desire should meet the blow of Justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must,
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war, twixt will, and will not. (2.2.773-7)
I would to heaven I had your potency,
Lucio immediately recognises the implication of her tactic where, in the
name of appealing to ‘heaven’ or Angelo’s idealised sense of his own
perfection as Judge, she offers her idealised perfection in exchange. Lucio’s
words foretell Angelo’s impending physical lust.
And you were Isabel: should it then be thus?
No: I would tell what twere to be a Judge,
And what a prisoner. (2.2.817-20)
Ay, touch him: there’s the vein. (2.2.821)
Despite Angelo’s rejection of her plea, Isabella persists. She appeals to
his belief in the condition of original sin and his fear of the final Christian
‘Judgment’ where he might expect mercy. Isabella’s ‘Judgment’ of God is
the polar opposite of the Provost’s and the Sonnet judgment that a person
brings upon themselves through their rejection of natural logic. She does
not anticipate the consequences of offering herself in Claudio’s place, or of
inciting Angelo’s idealistic religious beliefs to their logical extreme. Rather
than ‘mercy’, lust will breathe from his lips as he experiences his reactivated
Angelo feels the effect of Isabella’s ‘maiden’ presence, so he distances
himself from the ‘Law’ that condemns her brother. Ironically, to show his
impartiality, he claims he would kill a member of his family if they had
offended the Law.
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? Oh, think on that,
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
Like man new made. (2.2.824-31)
Be you content, (fair Maid)
Isabella returns to the critical point of the offencelessness of Claudio’s
It is the Law, not I, condemns your brother,
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him: he must die to morrow. (2.2.832-5)
Who is it that hath died for this offence?
In his attempt to justify his use of the Law against a couple dedicated to
each other and living the logic of increase, Angelo unwittingly resorts to
biological metaphors to explain his intentions.
There’s many have committed it. (2.2.842-3)
The Law hath not been dead, though it hath slept.
Isabella points out the disproportion between Angelo’s judgment and
Claudio’s crime. But Isabella’s argument is not based on natural justice.
Instead, by exacerbating Angelo’s sense of divine justice she drives him closer
to the point of divine lust.
Those many had not dared to do that evil
If the first that did th’Edict infringe
Had answered for his deed. Now ’tis awake,
Takes note of what is done, and like a Prophet,
Looks in a glass that shows what future evils
Either now, or by remissness, new conceived,
And so in progress to be hatched, and born,
Are now to have no successive degrees,
But here they live to end. (2.2.845-54)
Could great men thunder
Again, Lucio recognises the impending shift from puritanical extreme to
sexual lust in Angelo. Not only is Isabella acting the ‘wench’, Angelo is about
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting petty Officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder:Merciful heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the un-wedgeable 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 make the Angels weep: who with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal. (2.2.867-80)
Oh, to him, to him wench: he will relent,
The Provost, in keeping with his insight into natural judgment, is aware
that inciting Angelo’s over-idealistic regard for ‘heaven’ could precipitate an
inevitable about-face with its potentially disastrous sexual consequences.
Isabella unconsciously prefigures the shift in her attempt to convince Angelo
of the logic of saving her brother’s life.
He’s coming: I perceive’t. (2.2.881-2)
We cannot weigh our brother with our self.
Isabella’s argument gathers force as she shifts her appeal from Angelo’s
reverence for heaven and God, to the ‘heart’ in his ‘bosom’. Then, in a
revealing oxymoron, she talks of the ‘natural guiltiness’ of her brother.
Inevitably, in accord with the Sonnet philosophy, she moves closer to the
natural logic of Angelo’s suppressed ‘tongue’.
Great men may jest with Saints: ’tis wit in them,
But in the less foul profanation.
That in the Captain’s but a choleric word,
Which in the Soldier is flat blasphemy. (2.2.884-9)
Because Authority, though it err like others,
Angelo intuitively recognises the sense in her argument. It involuntarily
expresses the increase logic out of nature, which provides the most effective
logic against overwrought idealism as the play progresses.
Hath yet a kind of medicine in it self
That skins the vice o’th’top; go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault: if it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life. (2.2.892-9)
She speaks, and ’tis such sense,
But for Isabella to succeed, Shakespeare has her incite Angelo’s idealism
to the point where it cracks and reveals its repressed sexuality. Only then,
when he has recovered his natural inclination can he begin to Judge with
fairness. She knows that she is offering him a ‘bribe’ when she intensifies
his expectation of heavenly rewards. She offers not ‘gold or stones’ but,
That my Sense breeds with it; fare you well. (2.2.900-1)
Angelo agrees to see her ‘tomorrow’. He has reached the point where
the exaggerated piety of ‘prayers’ crosses into ‘temptation’. He is about to
invert the impact of Christ’s death on the cross, when temptation became
encased in ‘prayer’, or the promise of a heavenly life that defeats nature and
from preserved souls,
From fasting Maids, whose minds are dedicate
To nothing temporal. (2.2.910-14)
The effect of Isabella’s double argument is not lost on Angelo. His
soliloquy at the end of the scene recognises the ‘double vigour’ in her use
of ‘Art’ and her recourse to ‘Nature’. Isabella’s ‘virtue’ has ‘tempted’ him by
eliciting from his prurient idealism a response to the ‘carrion’ of ‘woman’s
lightness’. Angelo’s understanding of the forces working on him is
immediate. He is experiencing for the first time the philosophic realisations
Shakespeare articulates in the Sonnets. His subsequent actions, though,
demonstrate that his awareness is still selfish, particularly when he orders the
death of Claudio after promising to release him.
For I am that way going to temptation,
Where prayers cross. (2.2.918-20)
From thee: even from thy virtue.
Angelo’s words reveal more than he understands. His ‘feast upon her eyes’
invokes the logical relation of the eye of the mind and the sexual eye about
which his puritanical idealism is in denial. Shakespeare then puts into
Angelo’s mouth his commonly used word for the female sexual organ,
‘cunning (943)’ as the ‘enemy’ for which ‘Saints’ are used as ‘bait’. The
novelty of the experience for Angelo is captured in his bemusement at
feeling an emotion he has witnessed in others.
What’s this? what’s this? is this her fault, or mine?
The Tempter, 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 do’s, not as the flower,
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? oh fie, fie, fie:
What dost thou? or what art thou,Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully, for those things
That make her good? oh, let her brother live:
Thieves for their robbery have authority,
When Judges steal themselves: what, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again?
And feast upon her eyes? what is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a Saint,
With Saints dost bait thy hook: most dangerous
Is that temptation, that doth goad us on
To sin, in loving virtue: never could the Strumpet,
With all her double vigour, Art, and Nature,
Once stir my temper: but this virtuous Maid
Subdues me quite:Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled, and wond’red how. (2.2.925-50)
In the third scene of Act 2 the Duke as Friar visits the prison. First, he
parodies the role of a priest who is privy to the truth of the confessional
but is powerless to put right the revealed injustice. Then, in conversation
with Juliet he establishes that she was not ‘wronged’ by Claudio. Instead she
was a willing party in that her ‘most offenceful act was mutually committed’.
If Juliet was inclined to ‘confess’ and ‘repent’ her ‘sin’, the Duke forestalls
her by assuring her that if she does repent then she should have ‘sorrow’ to
herself, and ‘not heaven’, as ‘heaven’ should not be spared because it induces
‘fear’ not ‘love’.
’Tis meet so (daughter) but lest you do repent
The role of the Duke is to demonstrate the illogicality and hence the
inadequacy of religious dogmas and practices when they are adhered to
mercilessly in life. He adopts and later doffs the guise of a friar after he has
shown that heaven quickly turns to hell when it is given priority over
nature. The editors put a hyphen after the word fear in line 990, claiming
that Juliet interrupts the Duke’s train of thought. When, though, the passage
is read as a statement that corrects the misconception of ‘heaven’ as a repository
of ‘love’, the punctuation in the Folio is exact.
As that the sin hath brought you to this shame,
Which sorrow is always toward ourselves, not heaven,
Showing we would not spare heaven, as we love it,
But as we stand in fear. (2.3.986-90)
Juliet confirms the Dukes meaning when she accuses heavenly ‘love’ of
being injurious. The comfort of ‘heavenly love’ is a ‘dying horror’.
Must die tomorrow? oh injurious Love,
Again editors demonstrate their adherence to the inappropriate Christian
paradigm when they refuse to allow the meaning of Juliet’s lines. They
change to word ‘Love’ to ‘law’ wishing to blunt the relation of the passage to
the Duke’s condemnation of heavenly love in the lines above.
That respites me a life, whose very comfort
Is still a dying horror. (2.3.997-9)
To complete the revelation of the evil consequences of idealistic selfregard,
the fourth scene brings Angelo face to face with his murderous
puritanical goodness. When Angelo enters he muses over the relation
between praying and thinking. If he attempts to ‘pray’ and then ‘think’ he
finds instead he ‘thinks’ and then ‘prays’. The effect of Isabella on his ‘Tongue’
(oral and sexual) is to make his appeal to ‘heaven’no more than ‘empty words’
as if all he could do was ‘chew’but not digest the ‘name’God.
When I would pray, and think, I think, and pray
Angelo’s response to Isabella would be natural if the ‘empty’ status of
heaven and prayer had not heightened his vulnerability to sexual lust. The
‘evil’ of his ‘conception’ captures not only the way the conception in his
idealistic mind is exacerbated by the ‘strong and swelling’ desire in his heart
or body, but also the underlying logic of the conception of a child. He
reflects, concerned that ‘no man’overhear him, on the expectations that led
to his predicament.
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: (2.4.1003-9)
the state whereon I studied
Angelo recognises that his devotion to study, of which he had ‘grown
feared and tedious’ was the source of his ‘pride’. (Editors change ‘fear’d’ to
‘sere’, destroying Angelo’s admission that he ‘studied’ prayer and heaven out
of fear, and because he wanted the appearance of ‘gravity’ in the eyes of
others.) Angelo can see an advantage in changing his expectations especially
as heavenly ideals are the ‘idle plumes’ of vanity. He now knows that the
outer ‘case’ of religious ‘habit’ affects fools and even ‘wiser souls’. He is
determined to respond to his ‘blood’ and commit his good name to his sexual
appetite, because at least the ‘Devil’s horn’ is better than the ‘Devil’s crest’
or his vain plume of pride. Angelo knows that the pride of God begat the
pride of the Devil.
Is like a good thing, being often read
Grown fear’d, and tedious: yea, my Gravity
Wherein (let no man hear me) I take pride,
Could I, with boot, change for an idle plume
Which the air beats for vain: oh place, oh form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming? Blood, thou art blood,
Let’s write good Angel on the Devil’s horn
’Tis not the Devil’s Crest: (2.4.1009-19)
With the arrival of Isabella, Angelo experiences a rush of blood to the
heart. Isabella’s first words innocently reveal her predicament.
I am come to know your pleasure. (2.4.1035)
Angelo wishes she did ‘know’ what she was saying, to save him having
to ‘demand’ her favours.
When Isabella appeals for a date of execution, to allow Claudio’s soul
to be prepared for death, Angelo, who has tripped from good Angel to
Devil’s horn, rejects her plea since he considers both Claudio’s soul and
fornication ‘filthy vices’.
Ha? fie, these filthy vices: It were as good
Angelo is focused on his desire to bed Isabella. The achievement of his
desire hinges on the bargain he can get for Claudio’s pardon. He argues that
it is as good to pardon God (‘him’), who stole from ‘nature a man ready
made’ (Adam or Christ), as it is to pardon Claudio and Juliet. Their ‘saucy
sweetness’ attempts to recreate ‘heaven’s Image’ in stamps or wombs that are
forbidden. It is just as easy to ‘falsely’ take away a life that has been born
naturally as it is to put ‘metal’ or clay in a mould (‘restrained means’) to make
a ‘false one’ such as Adam/Christ.
To pardon him, that hath from nature stol’n
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness, that do coin heaven’s Image
In stamps that are forbid: ’tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made,
As to put mettle in restrained means
To make a false one. (2.4.1046-53)
Isabella’s response indicates that she at least hears Angelo’s reference’s to
God and heaven.
’Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth. (2.4.1054)
Angelo’s argument based on ‘heavenly’ comparisons is working, so he
‘quickly’ poses the alternative.
Say you so: then I shall pose you quickly.
Editors change the ‘and’ in line 1057 to ‘or’ because they are not willing
to accept the double strategy of the Duke, and so Shakespeare. When Angelo
asks, ‘which had you rather’ the alternatives are the position he outlines in
lines 1046-53 and the proposal he makes in lines 1055-9. The Duke wishes
to clean up both ends of corruption in Vienna, the excesses of sexual abuse
and false expectations based on celibacy. Angelo, having accepted his transformation
from ‘good angel’ to ‘Devil’s horn’ turns Isabella’s argument back
Which had you rather, that the most just Law
Now took your brother’s life, and to redeem him
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she that he hath stained? (2.4.1055-9)
He first attempts to arouse her regard for things Christian with his references
to the ‘ready made’ God, and the ‘coining of heaven’s Image’. She
responds, as he anticipates, by making a distinction between ‘heaven’ and
‘earth’. He ‘quickly’ attempts to capitalise on her insight by presenting her
with the conundrum of a dead brother who could be saved if she was willing
to do what Claudio and Juliet had done.
Isabella again responds as Angelo hopes by sacrificing her ‘body’ before
Sir, believe this.
Angelo advances his argument with a claim that Isabella’s ‘soul’ is not at
issue, because ‘compelled sins’ do not count before God.
I had rather give my body, than my soul. (2.4.1060-1)
I talk not of your soul: our compelled sins
She questions his authority to offer such a dispensation from sin by asking
‘How say you?’ Angelo retracts his Godly claim on the basis that he is
empowered to ‘speak against the thing I say’. But his motive is revealed when
he re-asserts his earthly authority as the ‘voice of the recorded Law’ over
her brother’s life. He inverts his previous claim that her ‘sin’ would be no
sin, by now suggesting that her sin would be a ‘charity’ if it saved her
Stand more for number, than for accompt. (2.4.1062-3)
Isabella has not yet appreciated the direction of Angelo’s argument. She
says she is prepared to accept the idea of Angelo saving her brother even
though her agreement might ‘peril my soul’. She is willing to take the ‘fault’
and leave Angelo to ‘answer’ for nothing.
Angelo suggests she is either ‘ignorant’ or ‘crafty’, but Isabella responds
that whether she is ‘ignorant’ or good for ‘nothing’ he should ‘graciously’
accept that she will be ‘no better’ for acquiescing in Claudio’s freedom. Her
answer, though, merely incites Angelo to a greater intensity of lust at her
self-denigrating ‘wisdom’, and the effect of the ‘black Masque’ of nunnery
‘en-shielding’ her beauty ten times more than if it was ‘displayed’.
Thus wisdom wishes to appear most bright,
Isabella, thinking the issue has been resolved answers perfunctorily, ‘So’
and then ‘True’, but Angelo is setting up his final move.
When it doth tax it self: as those black Masques
Proclaim an en-shield beauty ten times louder
Than beauty could displayed: But mark me,
To be received plain, I’ll speak more gross:
Your Brother is to die. (2.4.1086-91)
and that there were
When Isabella describes the effect of ‘keen whips’ on her body, she
further incites the lusting Angelo. She would rather die than yield to his
request if she was in the same position as her brother.
No earthly mean to save him, but that either,
You must lay down the treasures of your body,
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer:
What would you do? (2.4.1102-6)
As much for my poor Brother, as my self;
Isabella’s concern is not for death but that by ‘redeeming’ Claudio she
would lose her soul ‘for ever’. Angelo attempts to trap her in her previous
willingness to see Claudio pardoned.
That is:were I under the terms of death,
Th’impression of keen whips, I’ld wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed,
That longing have been sick for, ere I’ld yield
My body up to shame. (2.4.1107-12)
Were you not then as cruel as the Sentence,
But she answers sharply that there is a difference.
That you have slandered so? (2.4.1118-9)
Ignomy in ransom, and free pardon
When Angelo suggests she was prepared to ‘prove the sliding of your
brother a merriment, than a vice’, she admits that sometimes ‘we speak not
what we mean’. He again attempts to trap her according to her previous
admission by saying ‘we are all frail’, but she points to his ‘weakness’. When
he insists that ‘woman are frail too’, Isabella turns to the biblical precedent
that ‘creates’women’s inferiority.
Are of two houses: lawful mercy,
Is nothing kin to foul redemption. (2.4.1120-2)
Women? Help heaven; men their creation mar
Shakespeare has Isabella point to the logical source of inconsistency in
biblical mythology. ‘Men’ have determined that the creation by a male God
gave them priority over women who are ‘ten times’ inferior. The inferiority
of women is supposedly evident in their ‘soft complexions’ and their
credulousness. In the Sonnets, natural logic corrects the biblical illogicality
by acknowledging the priority of the female over the male in nature.
Shakespeare also plays on the number 10 (2.4.1088 and 2.4.1138) as the
numerological factor that separates the female and male in the Sonnets.
In profiting by them:Nay, call us ten times frail,
For we are soft, as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints. (2.4.1137-41)
Angelo capitalises on Isabella’s expression of inferiority. He uses their
shared belief in the ascendancy of the male to argue that she should change
her ‘Livery’ from that of a nun to that of a ‘woman’. He challenges her to
turn her ‘words’ into deeds. Even the word ‘livery’conveys the reality Angelo
wants her to accept.
I think it well:
But Isabella says she has only one ‘tongue’. She is committed to words
and not sex.
And from this testimony of your own sex
(Since I suppose we are made to be no stronger
Than faults may shake our frames) let me be bold;
I do arrest your words. Be that you are,
That is a woman; if you be more, you’re none.
If you be one (as you are well expressed
By all external warrants) show it now,
By putting on the destined Livery. (2.4.1142-50)
I have no tongue but one; gentle my Lord,
Language, though, is based on sexual logic, so Angelo’s reply carries the
logic of his intent.
Let me entreat you speak the former language. (2.4.1151-2)
Plainly conceive I love you. (2.4.1153)
Isabella says her brother is to die for such love, but Angelo says he need not
if she would love him. She expresses the realisation that ‘virtue’ always has
within it a ‘license’ for being ‘foul’. Angelo’s honour is not to be ‘believed’
considering his ‘most pernicious purpose’. She threatens to ‘tell the world’but
he says no one will believe her because of his ‘unsoiled’ name. The duplicity
in Angelo’s idealism is becoming apparent to Isabella.
My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,
Before Angelo departs he summarises the effect of his desire.
My vouch against you, and my place i’th’State,
Will so your accusation over-weigh,
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, (2.4.1169-78)
Say what you can, my false, o’er-weighs your true. (2.4.1184)
Ironically, Shakespeare has Angelo acknowledge the natural logic of the
relationship between the sexual dynamic of female and male and the
dynamic of truth in which the true and the false are determined.
When Isabella is alone she attempts to rationalise her dilemma though
she is only vaguely aware that her situation is a consequence of both Angelo’s
puritanical idealism and her denial of life through her flight into ‘Chastity’.
Her perception that Claudio has ‘fallen by prompture of the blood’, which
she divorces from his ‘honour’, is a measure of her corruption by ideals. No
one will believe her if she complains because she is trapped by an illogical
belief in an unnatural faith.
To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Isabella’s preconceptions, evident in her language, reveal her disdain for
natural logic. Shakespeare does not plan Angelo’s deceit nor the plight of
Isabella with malice. Rather he demonstrates his concern to resolve their
situation when, in Act 4 scene 1, the Duke shows a way out of their
Who would believe me? O perilous mouths
That bear in them, one and the selfsame tongue,
Either of condemnation, or approof,
Bidding the Law make courtesy to their will,
Hooking both right and wrong to the appetite,
To follow as it draws. I’ll to my brother,
Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of Honour,
That had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he’ld yield them up,
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorred pollution.
The Isabel live chaste, and brother die;
More than our Brother, is our Chastity.
I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest. (2.4.1185-201)
At this stage in the drama, though, Shakespeare has Isabella say things
that reveal her willingness to vilify natural acts to defend her flight into
chastity. She speaks of the two tongues, in both the moral sense of right and
wrong and of the sexual ‘will’ and ‘appetite’, not to acknowledge their logical
relationship but to condemn her brother for ‘falling’ because he is blighted
by the biblical dogma of original sin. By her recourse to the biblical doctrine
of the immortal ‘soul’ she excuses her inability to conceive of another path
of action other than accept her brother’s execution. Shakespeare’s purpose
is, by the play’s end, to release her and Angelo from such illogical beliefs so
that they can act consistently with natural logic.
When the Duke encounters Claudio at the beginning of Act 3, Claudio
says he has sufficient ‘hope to live’ but is ‘prepared to die’.
The miserable have no other medicine
In the Sonnets, Shakespeare establishes the logical conditions for understanding
based on a consistent relationship to nature. Throughout them the
issue of life and death is addressed frequently with the expectation that death
is seen as a part of life and not as the termination of life, individually or
But only hope: I’have hope to live, and am prepared to
So when Claudio differentiates himself from those who live in ‘hope’ of
a life beyond death and are miserly toward the duration of their own lives,
he expresses Shakespeare’s understanding. The exchange between the Duke
and Claudio at the beginning of Act 3 follows the presentation over the last
two Acts of the logical relation between the sexual dynamic and the dynamic
of understanding or truth and beauty. The possibility of increase evident in
Claudio and Juliet, and the prejudice visited on them by the injustice of
idealistic expectations made Law, leads to the investigation of the question
of life (Juliet and her baby) and death (Claudio) in Act 3. The connection
between the Duke’s philosophic understanding of the relation of life and
death and the attitude of Barnardine the murderer was mentioned in the
introduction and will be considered further when Barnardine is brought to
The Duke’s lengthy response to Claudio presents some of the philosophic
implications of Claudio’s avowal. The Duke does not argue for a life after
death in the biblical sense but rather that death is no worse than life when
all the difficulties in life are assessed. Twice in his speech he refers to the
‘thousands’ that ‘issue’ and the hidden ‘thousand deaths’ within life because
of increase. So when he says be ‘absolute for death’ to make ‘either death
or life’ the sweeter, he gives expression to the Sonnet understanding of the
logic of increase in nature.
Be absolute for death: either death or life
He suggests Claudio ‘reasons with life’ by considering it a mere ‘breath’,
‘death’s fool’, ‘not noble’, ‘by no means valiant’, ‘the best of rest is sleep’,
‘and even that ‘life grossly fear’st death’. Significantly, Claudio’s life is not
the only life.
Shall thereby be the sweeter. (3.1.1208-9)
Thou art not thy self,
If human life issued out of ‘dust’ then Claudio’s life exists as a consequence
of many thousands of lives. Life will be unhappy and uncertain and
without friends if his ‘bowels’ produce the ‘mere effusion’ of the ‘proper’
or logical use of his ‘loins’ in increase. Such a life spent alone would result
in the curses of old age without relief in posterity. ‘Youth’ and ‘age’ are a
‘dream’ without ‘heat, affection, limb, nor beauty’ if that which ‘bears the
name of life’ is not appreciated. The Duke returns to the increase principle
when he insists,
For thou exists on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. (3.1.1222-4)
Yet in this life
All the ‘odds’ which can be stacked against ‘life’by reason are made ‘even’
by ‘death’ because life/death contains within it the potential for more life.
Claudio appreciates the Duke’s argument all the more because Juliet is
pregnant. It provides Claudio’s immediate connection to the beginning of
his life in death.
Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds, all even. (3.1.1242-5)
To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
Shakespeare brilliantly captures the double meaning of life and death in
Claudio’s closing words. He lets both death and life ‘come’ on because death
and life ‘come’ through increase.
And seeking death, find life: Let it come on. (3.1.1246-7)
When Isabella enters, the Duke asks the Provost to conceal him so he
can overhear the conversation. As the logical characters in Shakespeare’s
Sonnets and the plays and poems are both persons in the world and personae
in the mind, at the level of the mind the Duke is effectively about to listen
to himself thinking.
When Isabella informs Claudio he should prepare for death, she puns
sexually on Angelo’s intentions and on her new perception of the duplicity
Lord Angelo having affairs to heaven
She puns sexually again when she alludes to the unacceptable remedy.
Intends you for his swift Ambassador, (3.1.1265-6)
None, but such remedy, as to save a head
Isabella calls Angelo’s change of character a ‘devilish mercy’ as she keeps
Claudio guessing why her mission to the ‘outward-sainted deputy’ has failed.
She ‘fears’ Claudio’ will see through her defence based on ‘honour’ when
he is faced with the inevitability of his death. Claudio suspects her motive
and questions why she uses ‘flowery tenderness’ and ironically resolves that,
To cleave a heart in twain. (3.1.1271-2)
If I must die,
When Isabella cuts to the point, she uses Shakespeare’s familiar pun on
I will encounter darkness as a bride, (3.1.1297-8)
Oh, ’tis the cunning Livery of hell,
Claudio’s initial response is of shock and outrage but on reflection sees
through Isabella’s previous ‘fear’. He reasons that the sin Angelo would
commit would be the least for her soul.
The damned’st body to invest, and cover
In prenzie guards: Dost thou think Claudio,
If I would yield him my virginity
Thou mightst be freed. (3.1.1310-4)
Yes. Has he affections in him,
Once Claudio appreciates Isabella’s reason for procrastinating, he realises
that he will have to contradict his previous preparedness for death to impress
on her the disjunction between the ‘shamed life’ of lost virginity and
the ‘fearfulness’ of death. His speech parodies all the metaphors of fearmongering
used by the Churches.
That thus can make him bite the Law by th’nose,
When he would force it? Sure it is no sin,
Or of the deadly seven it is the least. (3.1.1327-30)
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
Claudio’s ironical use of the images of death fostered by the strictly
celibate order Isabella is about to enter, is based on a sense of ‘nature’ where
saving a brother’s life makes her deed a ‘virtue’. Isabella’s unseemly outburst
in response reveals the hollow veneer that chastity, like Angelo’s puritanism,
presents to the world.
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 imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant 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. (3.1.1337-51)
O, you beast,
The Duke, who overhears the exchange, gets the response he seeks from
Isabella. Her strident avowal of her nunnish thoughts is her Angelo moment
from which she will now be able to forsake her need for chastity. She
intimates that the problem that drove her to the nunnery may have been
caused by her relation to her ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’. She offers ‘a thousand
prayers’ for Claudio’s death, ironically matching the thousand ‘grains’ and
lives out of death mentioned above.
Oh faithless Coward, Oh 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 played my Father fair:
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne’er issued 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. (3.1.1357-68)
When the Duke as Friar steps forward he purposely makes light of
Angelo’s corruption and tells Claudio to prepare for death. Because the
Duke controls the progress of Angelo and Isabella toward natural logic, he
temporarily deceives Claudio.
Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt
The Duke indicates he wants to speak to Isabella alone, insisting she will
be safe with him because ‘my mind promises with my habit, no loss shall
touch her with my company’. As he adopted the religious ‘habit’ for the
purposes of the play, and as he suggests to Isabella at the end of the play that
she give him her hand, he is obviously checking out more than her virtue.
Having generated the circumstances that led to her outburst to Claudio,
he wants to be in a position to capitalise on her newfound awareness of
her; only he hath made an assay of her virtue, to
practice his judgment with the dispositions of natures.
She (having the truth of honour in her) hath made him
the gracious denial which he is most glad to receive: (3.1.1383-7)
The Duke praises her ‘goodness’ and her ‘body’.
The hand that hath made you fair, hath made
When the Duke asks Isabella how she will deal with Angelo, she says
she would rather Claudio ‘die by the Law, than my son should be unlawfully
born’. The irony that Shakespeare’s first child was conceived unlawfully,
contrasts with Isabella’s readiness to condemn her brother to death to
save her chastity. The Duke’s intent is not to allow Angelo his way with
Isabella, but to provide an opportunity for Isabella to express her ‘resolve’
unequivocally by vowing aloud her illogical values. Only then does the
Duke/Friar inform her of his plan to save Claudio by substituting Mariana,
Angelo’s former betrothed, in a bed swap for Isabella. The added benefit
for the Duke/Friar is that saving Isabella’s ‘gracious person’ from stain will
‘much please the absent Duke’.
you good: the goodness that is cheap in beauty, makes
beauty brief in goodness; but grace being the soul of
your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair: (3.1.1401-4)
If Isabella will trick Angelo into bed with the still loving Mariana, the
Duke assures her that,
by this is
Hence the ‘strict deputy’ will be ‘scaled’. Like Escalus, he will gain sensitivity
to common justice. Isabella’s complicity in the plan begins the recovery
of her natural life. She expresses her delight by using the word ‘content’
which in sonnet 1 and sonnet 55 convey both a sense of satisfaction, and
point to the ‘content’ of Shake-speares Sonnets as the expression of natural
logic, or a ‘prosperous’ growing.
your brother saved, your honour untainted, the poor
Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled. (3.1.1473-5)
The image of it gives me content already, and I
When Elbow the constable enters with Pompey he is reasoning that if
there is ‘no remedy’ for prostitution the world would be full of ‘bastards’.
Pompey in turn complains that of the ‘two usuries’ the ‘merriest was put
down’, and ‘the worse allowed by Law’. He reckons that injustice occurs
when the ‘innocency’ of sex is seconded to legal profiteering. Editors change
the punctuation and words in this passage rather than accept it as an expression
of Pompey’s unfolding argument. The Duke as Friar, whose friarish
response to Elbow’s first words was ‘Oh heavens’, condemns prostitution
in a way he had been unable to do in his time as Duke.
trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection. (3.1.1480-1)
Fie, sirrah, a Bawd, a wicked bawd,
His condemnation, though, carries with it the concern for the
persistence of life that is expressed in the increase sonnets. When he asks
Pompey if he can ‘say to thy self ’, when under the influence of such women,
‘I drink, I eat away my self, and live’, he invokes the increase argument. Can
Pompey truthfully say that he ‘drinks’, or has sex, in a way that ‘eats away’
or erodes his selfishness, so that he can foster his potential to ‘live’ in his
progeny. Currently, when he ‘crams a maw’ or a woman’s vagina, it is for
‘evil’ ends rather than its obverse, to ‘live’. How can he believe that such
‘living is a life’.
The evil that thou causest to be done,
That is thy means to live. Do thou but think
What ’tis to cram a maw, or clothe a back
From such a filthy vice: say to thy self,
From their abhominable and beastly touches
I drink, I eat away my self, and live:
Can’st thou believe thy living is a life,
So stinkingly depending? Go mend, go mend. (3.1.1508-16)
Editors, because they do not acknowledge the significance of the increase
argument in the Sonnets, emend ‘I eat away my self ’ to ‘I eat, array myself,
and live’. They destroy the Sonnet logic on which the passage is based, and
ignore the connection of ‘eat’ to the earlier metaphor of cramming a maw.
When Pompey offers to ‘prove’ that there is some benefit in whoring,
the Duke says that ‘if the devil has given thee proofs for sin’ he will only
‘prove’ to be his victim. In the plays, Shakespeare frequently reminds his
readers that they are being presented with a logical argument. While his
characters may be amiss in their logic, their function as argumentative places
in the play cannot be dismissed.
Before Lucio reenters, the Duke observes, in reference to Angelo’s
duplicity, that ‘some would seem to be from our faults, as faults from seeming
free’. The Duke’s admission at the end of the scene that Angelo’s role is to
‘weed my vice’, (3.1.1755) lends credibility to the accusations of fault that
Lucio makes of the Duke over the next few lines, despite the doubts cast
by the Friar on the Duke’s behalf.
The malaise that afflicts Vienna has previously been attributed to the
Duke’s method of governance. The difference between Lucio and the Duke
corresponds to the difference between the adolescent, cocksure Master
Mistress and the mature circumspect Poet in the Sonnets. If the Duke was
profligate when young and, like Lucio, not at all circumspect, he now differs
from Lucio in his ability to set in place the appropriate measures to correct
such faults. Lucio is married to Mistress Keep-down at the play’s end because
he is still conditioned by a whorehouse mentality, just as the youth of the
Sonnets is criticised for wasting his sexual potential on himself.
Lucio’s brash erotic wordplay shows a measure of wit that is heightened
by his bravado. If Pompey thought the arrival of his ‘gentleman…friend’
Lucio would assist him, he had not anticipated the defensive intellectual
scorn Lucio now exhibits to cover his own weakness for prostitutes.
How now, noble Pompey? What, at the wheels
The exchange continues with Pompey hoping Lucio will recognise him
as a ‘friend’, but for Lucio that is not possible. When Pompey is taken away,
Lucio informs the Friar of the Duke’s behaviour.
of Caesar? Art thou led in triumph? What is there none
of Pygmalion’s Images newly made woman to be had
now, for putting the hand in the pocket, and extracting
clutched? What reply? Ha? What say’st thou to this
Tune, Matter, and Method: Is’t not drowned i’th’last
rain? Ha? What say’st thou Trot? Is this world as it was
Man? Which is the way? Is it sad, and few Words?
Or how? The trick of it. (3.1.1533-41)
It was a mad fantastical trick of him to steal
When he suggests the Duke’s replacement is ‘something too crabbed’
the Friar/Duke reasserts his reasons for appointing Angelo.
from the State, and usurp the beggary he was never
born to. (3.1.1581-3)
It is too general a vice, and severity must cure it. (3.1.1588)
Lucio then identifies the conditions behind Angelo’s idealism that make
him a ‘cold fish’. Because Shakespeare’s aim in Measure for Measure is to show
that the rationale for Angelo’s pious idealism and Isabella’s intended nunnery
distorts natural logic, he has Lucio describe Angelo as a mythological erotic
wonder. In the Sonnets Shakespeare articulates the logical conditions for any
mythic expression. The imaginative possibilities generated in the dynamic
of truth and beauty are logically conditional on nature, the sexual dynamic
and the increase potential.
Lucio. They say
Shakespeare explicitly identifies the illogicalities of the biblical myth of
the ‘Creation’ of ‘Man and Woman’, and the myths of Greek idealism, with
Angelo’s role in the play. The Duke’s disguise as Friar is the counterpart to
Angelo’s function as the representative of the psychology of idealism that the
Duke uses to redress an imbalance in Viennese society. Lucio challenges the
imaginative status of mythologies when he asks ‘is it true?’ His assertion ‘that’s
infallible’ parodies religious systems that proclaim such fantasies are true.
this Angelo was not made by Man and Woman, after
this down-right way of Creation: is it true, think
Duke. How should he be made then?
Lucio. Some report a Sea-maid spawned him. Some
that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is
certain, that when he makes water, his Urine is
congealed ice, that I know to be true: and he is a motion
generative, that’s infallible. (3.1.1591-1600)
In Lucio’s statement, the words ‘begot’ and ‘motion generative’ act as
metaphors to characterise the erotic nature of myth. When the Duke/Friar
complements him, Lucio contrasts Angelo’s attitude with the more sympathetic
approach of the Duke, who would not execute a person for
fornication or for responding to the natural instinct to increase.
Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for
The Friar/Duke denies Lucio’s assertions that the Duke has an eye for
women. The Duke as Friar is not concerned with the philosophic status of
truth but in redressing the psychological malaise in Vienna through the
agency of Angelo. He denies the Duke was ‘detected for Women’, and
claims Lucio is wrong when he says the Duke would ‘put a ducat in her
Clack-dish’. He suggests it is envy on Lucio’s part to say the Duke was a
‘very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow’, and claims instead that the
Duke was ‘a Scholar, a Statesman, and a Soldier’. Lucio dismisses the Friar’s
representations and claims the Friar is ‘deceived’ in the Duke.
The rebellion of a Cod-piece, to take away the life of a
man? Would the Duke that is absent have done this?
Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a
hundred Bastards, he would have paid for the Nursing a
thousand. He had some feeling of the sport, he knew
the service, and that instructed him to mercy. (3.1.1602-8)
When the conversation turns to Claudio, Lucio repeats his characterisation
of Angelo as ‘this ungenitur’d Agent’, or one who is like the mythological
God or gods who do no propagate naturally. Shakespeare reinforces
the correspondence between Angelo and God, whose names suggest their
complicity. Angelo’s condemnation of Claudio for ‘filling a bottle with a
Tun-dish’ or ‘untrussing’, is a natural injustice that would never happen
under the Duke. When Lucio departs the Friar/Duke acknowledges the
impossibility of escaping justice, because the ‘gall’ will inevitably surface in
No might, nor greatness in mortality
Immediately after the characterisation of Angelo as an ‘Agent’ of God,
Shakespeare introduces the second instance of increase which was instigated
before the play began. When the Bawd enters with Escalus and Provost, she
reveals that Mistress Keep-down has a child, which is Lucio’s. Juliet is
pregnant to Claudio and Lucio has a child to a prostitute. The force of
natural logic surfacing in the play underlies the illogical activities of Angelo
and the use of those inconsistencies by the Duke to correct idealistic
excesses, whether of the body (prostitution) or the mind (religion).
Can censure scape: Back-wounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes. What King so strong,
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous song? (3.1.1671-4)
When the Duke as Friar introduces himself, he explicitly associates his
role as a Friar with the psychology of religious authority, to be exercised
only in ‘special’ circumstances.
I am a brother
Escalus enquires for ‘news abroad i’th’world’ and while the Duke reports
he has none, he takes the opportunity to state clearly the nature of his ‘special
business’. The Duke seeks to redress the two manifestations of disorder in
Vienna: too much sex and too much celibacy. Both in excess are contrary
to the logic of increase. But as a Friar who is self-appointed to correct
the evils of religion, he laments the type of ‘goodness’ exhibited by Angelo
Of gracious Order, late come from the See,
In special business from his Holiness. (3.1.1704-6)
None, but there is so great a Fever on
The ‘Fever on goodness’ is so great that there is no way but to dissolve
it by revealing its duplicity in Angelo and by freeing the fearful and impressionable
Isabella from her unseemly attraction to the nunnery. ‘Novelty’ or
the desire for an attitude to life that might be superior to natural logic with
its increase potential, is the only thing that seems to be on ‘request’ in
Vienna. As that is the case, it has become as ‘dangerous’ to adhere to the
‘aged’ principles of natural logic, as it is ‘virtuous to be constant’ in any
undertaking. Angelo’s threat to Claudio and Juliet’s pregnancy shows the
danger to the natural forces of life both from his literal application of the
Laws against sexual excess, and from the Isabella’s flight to the idealised life
of a nun. When ‘novelty’ is unconstrained, the virtue of being constant to
the natural logic of posterity is put in ‘danger’.
goodness, that the dissolution of it must cure it. Novelty
is only in request, and as it is as dangerous to be
aged in any kind of course, as it is virtuous to be constant
in any undertaking. There is scarce truth enough
alive to make Societies secure, but Security enough to make
Fellowships accursed: Much upon this riddle runs
The wisdom of the world: This news is old enough,
yet it is every day’s news. (3.1.1708-16)
In Vienna there is scarce enough ‘truth’ left alive, or consciousness of
the natural requirements of life, to make society secure for the future. But
there is ‘security enough’ in excessive idealism to make ‘Fellowships’ like
nunneries and the papacy paradoxically become ‘accursed’ because of their
illogical expectations. From the Sonnets, the ‘riddle’ that runs the ‘wisdom
of the world’ is the logical relation of female and male and the increase
argument out of nature, which assures a consistent understanding of truth
and beauty. If those seeking novelty consider the logic of life ‘old news’, it
is still the news that everyone lives by every day of their lives whether they
think they do or not.
When the Friar asks Escalus to speak of the Duke’s ‘disposition’, he
replies that the Duke ‘sought to know himself ’ and was a ‘gentleman of
all temperance’. The Aristotelian dimension of Shakespeare’s philosophy is
evident in Escalus’ description of the Duke as a reflective person of moderation.
The Duke’s temperate self-awareness allows Angelo to act on his
behalf, particularly as Vienna requires more than moderation to correct
On the subject of Claudio, the Friar/Duke, in keeping with his religious
guise as a minister to death, tells Escalus that Claudio is ready to die. Escalus’
response that the Duke/Friar pays the ‘heavens your function’ reflects the
irony of Escalus’ ignorance of the Friar’s identity. He expresses his concern
that, in contrast to his sympathy for Claudio, he has found his ‘brother
Justice…so severe’. The Duke/Friar sustains the charade, although his words
hint at Claudio’s eventual pardon and release.
If his own life,
The Duke’s soliloquy, following Escalus’ departure, restates the logic of
his plan. Shakespeare identifies the principal problem requiring resolution
as the excessive dependency on an inhuman expectation of holiness that is
so unstable it succumbs to the crime it was supposed to obviate. The contradiction
in the phrase ‘sword of Heaven’ captures the illogicality of hoping
to act judiciously on the basis of ‘Heavenly’ ideals.
Answer the straightness of his proceeding,
It shall become him well: wherein if he chance to fail
he hath sentenced himself. (3.1.1740-3)
He who the sword of Heaven will bear,
The Duke readily admits to his ‘vice’, whereas Angelo’s pretence of
‘goodness’ denies the vice in his goodness, allowing it to ‘grow’ within him.
Angelo not only lacks insight into his own condition, he is unable to ‘craft’
a plan to restore a balance in himself and much less able to restore the balance
of Viennese society. That is the role of the Duke.
Should be as holy, as severe:
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and Virtue go:
More, nor less to others paying,
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him, whose cruel striking,
Kills for faults of his own liking:
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice, and let his grow.
Oh, what may Man within him hide,
Though Angel on the outward side?
How many likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the Times,
To draw with idle Spider’s strings
Most ponderous and substantial things? (3.1.1746-61)
Craft against vice, I must apply.
At the beginning of Act 4, Mariana’s ‘Boy’ sings a short song that
erotically evokes both the lips and eyes. The song encapsulates Mariana’s
discontent with Angelo since he ‘forswore’ their vows. The vows should
have ‘sealed’ their love, but failed because of Angelo’s vanity. Shakespeare
uses the song to express the logical relation between the body and mind,
or between the lips and eyes, and the swearing of vows. Sonnets 151 and
152, the last sonnets that specifically deal with truth in the Mistress
sequence, express the relation between the sexual and swearing as the most
deliberate form saying.
With Angelo tonight shall lie
His old betrothed (but despised):
So disguise shall by th’disguised
Pay with falsehood, false exacting,
And perform an old contracting. (3.1.1762-7)
Take, oh take those lips away,
On the entry of the Duke, Mariana apologises for her need to hear
that so sweetly were forsworn
And those eyes: the break of day
lights that do mislead the Morn;
But my kisses bring again, bring again,
Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain. (4.1.1770-5)
I cry you mercy, Sir, and well could wish
In the Sonnets, music is associated with the logic of beauty or sensations.
Sonnet 8, the first music sonnet, occurs in the increase sonnets that consider
the physical or sensory need to reproduce, and sonnet 128, the other specifically
music sonnet occurs in the Mistress sonnets that consider the logic of
beauty. Because beauty is a sensory process, of which ‘seeing’ is archetypical,
sonnet 137 characterises the dynamic of beauty as taking the ‘best’ for the
‘worst’. So the Duke’s response to Mariana anticipates the Sonnet logic of
sensations, and hence music.
You had not found me here so musical.
Let me excuse me, and believe me so,
My mirth it much displeased, but pleased my woe. (4.1.1780-3)
’Tis good; though Music oft hath such a charm
By altering the punctuation of line 1786, the editors (who remove the
comma after ‘bad’ and the semicolon after ‘good’) destroy the dynamic established
by the original punctuation. The Folio text gives emphasis to the
unpredictable outcome from good or bad experiences of music.
To make bad, good; and good provoke to harm. (4.1.1785-6)
When Isabella enters, the Duke introduces her to Mariana, and gets their
agreement for the substitution of Mariana for Isabella in Angelo’s bed.
Isabella confirms she has made the necessary arrangements with Angelo, and
describes the plan in veiled erotic terms (4.1.1799-1806). When the women
move aside, the Duke summarises the logic of the situation. Shakespeare has
him express the illogical consequences of the life-denying idealism of Angelo
and Isabella. His short speech vilifies the fancies of a belief that has a ‘father’
or God giving birth to ‘millions of false eyes’. Such idealised beings are bereft
of the natural relationship between the eye of sex and the eyes of the mind.
The Duke provides an effective rejoinder to Mariana’s song.
Oh Place, and greatness: millions of false eyes
Again the editors, who are ignorant of the Sonnet logic and hence
Shakespeare’s philosophic intent, manifest extreme discomfort with these
lines. They consider it neither ‘long enough’ to allow the two women to
converse, nor ‘appropriate’. Their inability to put aside the inadequacy of
their beliefs prevents them from seeing Shakespeare’s greater purpose.
Are stuck upon thee: volumes of report
Run with thee false, and most contrarious Quest
Upon thy doings: thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dream,
And rack thee in their fancies. (4.1.1835-9)
The Duke concludes the scene by assuring Mariana that her act has the
force of ‘Justice’ because of her ‘pre-contract’ with Angelo. His final words,
though, cause problems for the editors. Some change the word ‘Tithes’ to
Our corns to reap, for yet our Tithes to sow. (4.1.1854)
The editors have the same problem with a similar passage in Love's Labour's Lost.
There they change the word ‘Alone’, which has full meaning
in the Sonnet philosophy, to the nonsense word ‘Allons’.
Alone, Alone, Sowed Cockle, reaped no Corn,
In Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne tells the King that he cannot reap sowed
corn or reproduce if he remains ‘alone’. The ‘Wenches’ will forswear such
men whose ‘Copper’(read penises) will buy no better treasure (read vaginas).
So the ‘tithes’ are coins that should be sown to make the women’s treasure
fertile. The substitution of the word tilth turns a fulsome metaphor into a
simple agricultural comparison.
And justice always whirls in equal measure:
Light Wenches may prove plagues to men forsworn,
If so, our Copper buys no better treasure. (LLL.4.3.1734-7)
Scene 2 begins with the Provost asking Pompey if he could ‘cut off a
man’s head’. Pompey, hearing a reference to his trade, quips that he can cut
off a Bachelor’s head or penis but not that of a married man whose head
now is his wive’s, and women do not have penises.
If the man be a Bachelor Sir, I can:
The plural ‘wives’ indicates the generality of his point. The editors, who
change ‘wive’s’ to ‘wife’s’, are ignorant of the Sonnet logic in which the
Mistress is the logical representative of all women.
But if he be a married man, he is his wive’s head,
And I can never cut off a woman’s head. (4.2.1858-60)
Somewhat ironically, Pompey’s response is in keeping with the Provost’s
explanation that he wants Pompey to assist the executioner behead Claudio
and Barnardine. Pompey’s logic predicts that he will not have to cut off
Claudio’s head. The logical relation Pompey recognises between being an
‘unlawful bawd’ and a ‘lawful hangman’ allows that only idealistically selfish
people should lose their heads.
Sir, I have been an unlawful bawd, time out of
The relation between the loss of sexual heads and the loss of heads on
the block is captured in the executioner’s name. Shakespeare titles him
‘Abhorson’ to connect the traits of a whore’s son with the job of head
remover. To make the connection patently clear to the audience who have
listened to Pompey’s erotic repartee since the beginning of the scene,
Shakespeare has the Provost call out the executioner’s name twice.
mind, but yet I will be content to be a lawful hangman:
I would be glad to receive some instruction from
my fellow partner. (4.2.1869-72)
What ho, Abhorson:Where’s Abhorson, there? (4.2.1873)
The Provost introduces Abhorson to Pompey who, he says, cannot have
pretensions of worth because he ‘hath been a bawd’. But, mimicking the
response of editors, who miss the logical relation Pompey intuits between
beheading and self-interested sex, Abhorson spurns Pompey as one who will
‘discredit our mystery’. The Provost insists, though, that they are logically
Go to Sir, you weigh equally: a feather will
When Pompey questions Abhorson about the ‘mystery’, he makes
further links between whoring and executing by laconically alluding to
Abhorson’s name with the phrase, ‘And your Whores sir’.
turn the Scale. (4.2.1883-4)
Painting Sir, I have heard say, is a Mystery;
Pompey engages in the type of mock argument that occurs in a number
of Shakespeare’s plays. Since the beginning of the scene, Pompey’s witty
responses have capitalised on the origin of the logic of language in the sexual
dynamic. When Pompey alludes to Abhorson’s double status as hangman
and as the son of a whore, he wishes to demonstrate that the ‘Mystery’ of
life lies in the sexual potential and not in a fascination with death. For him
there is no mystery in hanging, but there is in the pageantry of sex. When
Abhorson gives his brief ‘proof ’ of the mystery of hanging, it is seized on
by Pompey to demonstrate the sexual logic of language.
and your Whores sir, being members of my occupation,
using painting, do prove my Occupation, a Mystery; but
what Mystery there should be in hanging, if I should be
hanged, I cannot imagine. (4.2.1889-93)
Abhorson’s proof is that the ‘apparel’ or noose, that symbolises true men,
always fits the thief ’s neck. But Pompey, the inveterate bawd, turns the
metaphor about so the ‘true man’ ironically becomes the penis and the
‘Thief ’ becomes the vagina. If the woman thinks the penis is too little, the
true man will think it is big enough and if the penis is too big the woman
will think it is little enough. So, in the common delusion of vanity, every
true man thinks his penis (apparel) will fit the vagina (Thief).
Abhorson. Every true man’s apparel fits your Thief.
Pompey. If it be too little for your thief, your true man
thinks it big enough. If it be too big for your
Thief, your Thief thinks it little enough: So every
true man’s apparel fits your Thief. (4.2.1895-900)
The agreement between Pompey and Abhorson is only an agreement
by virtue of their common humanity. Their proof, while based in different
professions, comes to the same conclusion because they are informed by the
same natural logic. When the Provost asks if they are ‘agreed’, they affirm
their common cause and their willingness to benefit from one another’s
‘trade’. Some editors attribute Pompey’s lines to Abhorson, not appreciating
Shakespeare’s witty and pithy demonstration of the erotic logic of language.
When the Provost calls forth Claudio and the murderer Barnardine,
Barnardine cannot be woken. The incident is characteristic of Barnardine’s
recalcitrance. He has reconciled the forces of life and death at the most basic
As fast locked up in sleep, as guiltless labour,
Claudio is advised to prepare himself for death by the Provost who, when
the Duke/Friar enters, complains that Angelo is a ‘bitter deputy’. The Duke,
knowing that Angelo is currently in bed with Mariana, uses the logical
resources of language to say what he cannot yet confirm.
When it lies starkly in the Traveler’s bones,
He will not wake. (4.2.1921-3)
Not so, not so: his life is paralleled
Angelo is leading parallel lives. The sexual ‘stroke’ and ‘line’ of his ‘great
Justice’ or sexual organ, because of its ‘Holy abstinence’, is now ‘spurring’
on his ‘power’. Ironically, once he ‘meals’ or partakes of that which he has
corrected in others, his ‘tyranny’ will be proven to be ‘just’. He will at least
have proven the Laws of Nature or natural logic.
Even with the stroke and line of his great Justice:
He doth with holy abstinence subdue
That in himself, which he spurs on his power
To qualify in others:were he meal’d with that
Which he corrects, then were he tyrannous,
But this being so, he’s just. (4.2.1939-45)
With the return of the Provost, the Duke expects news of Claudio’s
pardon, so when the messenger enters he predicts,
This is his Pardon purchased by such sin,
The letter, though, reveals that Angelo has gone against his word with
an order for Claudio’s execution, with his head to be delivered to Angelo.
As a way to forestall Claudio’s execution, the Duke enquires after Barnardine,
with the idea that his head could be substituted for Claudio’s. Barnardine,
who has been a prisoner for 9 years, has avoided execution due to his
continued drunkenness and the reprieves gained by friends claiming his
innocence. The Provost says the absent Duke had neither given him his
liberty nor executed him. He characterises Barnardine’s state of mind in a
way that is consistent with the Duke’s attitude to life and death revealed in
his earlier exchange with Claudio.
For which the Pardoner himself is in:
Hence hath offence his quick celerity,
When it is born in high Authority.
When Vice makes Mercy;Mercy’s so extended,
That for the fault’s love, is th’offender friended. (4.2.1972-7)
A man that apprehends death no more dreadfully,
The Friar/Duke prevails on the Provost to delay the execution of
Claudio because Claudio is in ‘no greater forfeit to the Law’ than Angelo.
He encourages the Provost to execute Barnardine and send his head to
Angelo because ‘death’s a great disguiser’. He produces a letter from the
Duke to allay the Provost’s concern that the Friar’s suggestion will be against
his lawful ‘oath’.
but as a drunken sleep, careless, wreckless, and
fearless of what’s past, present, or to come: insensible
of mortality, and desperately mortal. (4.2.2008-11)
At the beginning of scene 3, Pompey notes the similarities between
a whorehouse and the prison. Similar clientele inhabit each place. He
continues his sexual punning when Abhorson gets him to bring in
Master Barnardine, you must rise and be hanged, (4.3.2098)
Barnardine responds in kind.
A pox o’your throats. (4.3.2102)
As does Pompey.
Oh, the better Sir: for he that drinks all night,
When the Duke enters, Barnardine claims to be too drunk to die. The
Duke, though he tries, finds it impossible to reason with him. This is due
partly to Barnardine’s drinking, but principally because Barnardine’s
natural attitude to life and death was not arrived at rationally. Because
Barnardine’s logic of life and death was generated in his cell, he suggests
the Duke should join him there if he has ‘anything to say’. But the Duke
recognises that Barnardine’s completely unrational state of mind renders
him ‘unfit to live or die’.
and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the
sounder all the next day. (4.3.2123-5)
It is a measure of the inadequacy of the paradigm behind the traditional
interpretation of Measure for Measure that Harold Bloom in The Invention of
the Human considers Barnardine to be the ‘imaginative centre’ and the
‘greatest glory’ of the play (p. 374). The difficulty he has with the play as a
whole is summarised by his ability to see only the meanest end of the
brilliant philosophy Shakespeare expresses through the Duke and the other
characters. Because Bloom has no idea of the Sonnet philosophy he is bereft
of the level of understanding required to appreciate Shakespeare’s works. His
commentaries take the worst of Shakespeare for the best and otherwise
substitute unfounded opinion for Shakespeare’s brilliant natural logic.
The Provost’s disclosure that another prisoner, Ragozine, has died of
fever fortuitously provides a substitute head for Barnardine’s. The
Friar/Duke calls it an ‘accident that heaven provides’ and, in keeping with
his adopted role of Friar, resolves to teach Barnardine ‘willingly to die’. The
Provost sardonically acknowledges the piousness of the gesture by calling
the Duke ‘good Father’.
The Duke then sends Angelo a letter to tell of his plan to return to Vienna
the following day. When, from within, he hears Isabella’s ‘tongue’, the same
voice that so roused Angelo, he resolves not to tell her of Claudio’s reprieve.
Consistent with his programme of gradually leading her from her unnatural
inclination to nunnery, he begins by increasing her ‘heavenly comforts’ to
keep her from her current ‘despair’. He mocks the traditional Christian programme
of offering the delusion of heaven to those in despair. Isabella reveals
that she is still susceptible to such heavenly trickery by calling the Duke/Friar
‘so holy a man’, and by invoking the imagery of Christian damnation or
Unhappy Claudio, wretched Isabel
The Duke tells her to attribute the real ‘cause’ of her suffering to the
illusion of ‘heaven’ and, instead, to listen to his advice.
Injurious world, most damned Angelo. (4.3.2211-2)
This nor hurts him, nor profits you a jot,
He tells her the Duke will return tomorrow, and that she and Mariana
are to meet him at the city gate where Angelo and Escalus have been told
to wait. Then, to complete his deconstruction of priestly conceits, he
informs her that he is prevented from attending by a ‘sacred Vow’ and that,
if he has perverted her course, not to ‘trust my holy Order’. Shakespeare’s
view of the clergy as a necessary evil (sonnets 118/119) that should perform
a temporary role in restoring order to individuals and society is conveyed
in the irony of the Duke’s avowals.
Forbear it therefore, give your cause to heaven.
Mark what I say, which you shall find
By every syllable a faithful verity. (4.3.2213-6)
When Lucio returns he underscores the Duke’s inward irony in the
banter of the next few lines. He suggests the Duke was not averse to ‘dark
corners’ or being a ‘woodman’. Then, with typical bravado, he admits to
the Duke/Friar that he got ‘a Wench with child’.
In scene 4, greeted with the news of the Duke’s return, Angelo wonders
at the ‘uneven and distracted manner’ of the Duke. But it is only to Angelo’s
distracted mind that the Duke’s untimely return seems like ‘madness’.
Although he has no reason to suspect that Isabella and Mariana will be
briefed by the Duke about the plan for his return (as they are in scene 6),
he tells Escalus of his concern about being questioned by the populace at
the city gate. When alone, he expresses his discomfort.
This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant
Angelo’s lust for Isabella, because it derives from idealistic pretensions, is
an offence against natural logic. He has been made ‘unpregnant’ or unnatural
by his deed. He has used the ‘Law’ of societal conventions to achieve ends
for his ‘body’. He believes he ‘tongued’ her in the garden-house, so now he
worries that she might ‘tongue’ or expose him in return. But he reasons that,
because his ‘Authority bears of a credent bulk’ or is based on traditionally
respected dogmas such as the Christian Creed, he can use it to defend himself
against her accusations. Similarly, he acknowledges that Claudio ‘should have
lived’ but justifies his deed by presuming that Claudio might have taken
And dull to all proceedings. A deflowered maid,
And by an eminent body, that enforc’d
The Law against it? But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me? yet reason dares her no,
For my Authority bears of a credent bulk,
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have liv’d,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge
By so receiving a dishonoured life
With ransom of such shame:would yet he had lived.
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right, we would, and we would not. (4.4.2291-305)
Because Angelo is bereft of natural logic, which would enable him to
discern right from wrong, he is unable to judge and act appropriately. His
confusion is evident when he muses that ‘nothing goes right, we would,
and we would not’. (Editors emend the ‘of a’ in line 2297 because they do
not wish to acknowledge the criticism of belief.)
Act 5 opens with the Duke welcoming Angelo and Escalus at the city
gate. He greets Angelo as an ‘old friend’ and thanks him for the ‘goodness’
of his justice. Then, when Isabella enters, she insists she has been ‘wronged’
but spurns the Duke’s suggestion that Angelo will hear her complaint and
give justice. She refuses to seek ‘redemption’ because she sees Angelo as a
‘devil’. So when Angelo dismisses her accusations as an infirmity of ‘wits’,
she lists his offences.
That Angelo’s forsworn, is it not strange?
The Duke concurs that Isabella is infirm and orders she be taken away.
She insists, though, that it is possible for someone like Angelo to ‘seem
unlike’ his true self. Isabella is learning to argue a case against the deceptions
of idealistic pretense.
That Angelo’s a murderer, is’t not strange?
That Angelo is an adulterous thief,
An hypocrite, a virgin-violater, (5.1.2392-5)
Make not impossible
The Duke, while not wanting to alert Angelo to his strategy, acknowledges
the ‘sense’ of her argument. After all, he has played a part in maturing
her appreciation of the dynamic of ‘truth’ as the relation between true and
false. A few lines earlier Isabella has already demonstrated an understanding
of the logic of truth, as a process of predetermined ‘reckoning’.
That which but seems unlike. ’tis not impossible
But one, the wicked’st caitiff on the ground
May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute:
As Angelo, even so may Angelo,
In all his dressings, caracts, titles, forms,
Be an arch-villain: Believe it, royal Prince,
If he be less, he’s nothing, but he’s more,
Had I more name for badness. (5.1.2407-15)
It is not truer he is Angelo,
Again she correctly characterises truth as a logical dynamic in which the
relation between the true and the false is weighed.
Than this is all as true, as it is strange:
Nay, it is ten times true, for truth is truth
To th’end of reck’ning. (5.1.2398-42)
Oh gracious Duke
Isabella is beginning to use the logic of truth in a way that is consistent
with the dynamic of truth and beauty presented in the Sonnets. Not surprisingly,
the Duke again commends her growing sanity.
Harp not on that; nor do not banish reason
For inequality, but let your reason serve
To make the truth appear, where it seems hid,
And hide the false seems true. (5.1.2421-5)
Many that are not mad
When Lucio interjects, the Duke insists that he should not speak. But
Lucio responds that Isabella was ‘right’ when she ‘told him somewhat of her
tale’, so the Duke again commands him to be quiet. Lucio may be right,
but he is wrong to reveal what he knows at this time. The Duke not only
wants to be right, he wants Angelo and Isabella to sense the potential of
natural logic for themselves.
Have sure more lack of reason: (5.1.2426-7)
It may be right, but you are i’the wrong
The Duke’s exchange with Lucio defines the strategy that Shakespeare,
in his persona as the Duke, uses throughout the play. Truth is not something
that can be held up independently as true, but emerges from an argumentative
process in which the true and the false are based in natural logic. This
is consistent with Shakespeare’s practice in the argument of the Sonnets.
Because the commentators do not understand the Sonnet logic, they have
no way of appreciating the soundness of the Duke’s strategy.
To speak before your time. (5.1.2451-2)
Isabella, who has already demonstrated her awareness of the logic, applies
the Duke’s advice when she next accuses Angelo. She begins by characterising
Angelo as ‘this pernicious caitiff deputy’but then corrects herself when
the Duke says, ‘talk to the matter’.
In brief, to set the needless process by:
The Duke responds,
How I persuaded, how I prayed, and kneeled,
How he refelled me, and how I replied
(For this was of much length) the vile conclusion
I now begin with grief, and shame to utter.
He would not, but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust
Release my brother; and after much debatement,
My sisterly remorse, confutes mine honour,
And I did yield to him: But the next morn betimes,
His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant
For my poor brother’s head. (5.1.2459-70)
This is most likely. (5.1.2471)
To which Isabella replies.
Oh that it were as like as it is true. (5.1.2472)
The relationship between the Duke and Isabella, which began with his
assurances at 3.1.1398-9 that as a monk he would be no threat to her, has
gradually developed to the point where they are able to employ the logic of
truth in unison. If the beauty of the novice nun originally took the Duke’s
attention, her newly gained awareness of the idealistic duplicity that affected
both Angelo and herself has profoundly altered her mind, aligning her understanding
with the Duke’s. This is the point at which they fall deeply in love.
Traditional commentators wonder at what they consider the suddenness of
the Duke’s proposal of interest in Isabella at the end of the play. They fail to
see the gradual development of the relationship as Isabella’s mind is rescued
from its idealistic flight to find its natural mate in the mind of the Duke.
The Duke acknowledges their intensified awareness of love in his next
line. He avows his fondness in an oxymoron (which is as much as he could
say in front of Angelo) that captures both his affection and his concern for
the wretchedness that heaven preys upon. He does this while maintaining
the strategy of deliberate concealment.
By heaven (fond wretch) thou know’st not what thou speak’st.
As part of the charade the Duke insists that Isabella ‘confess the truth’
about who set her up to complain about Angelo. Isabella willingly plays her
Or else thou art suborned against his honour
In hateful practice: (5.1.2473-5)
And is this all?
The Duke has her arrested. To sustain the charade Isabella invents the
name Lodowick for the unnamed friar who directed her earlier actions. Her
humour and invention draw a compliment from the Duke, who notes
Lodowick’s opportunistic incarnation by calling him a ‘ghost’.
Then, oh you blessed Ministers above
Keep me in patience, and with ripened time
Unfold the evil, which is here wrapt up
In countenance: heaven shield your Grace from woe,
As I thus wronged, hence unbelieved go. (5.1.2483-8)
Isabella. One that I would were here, Friar Lodowick.
In the Folio, the Duke’s comments are given two lines. The division
separates his response to Isabella’s wit from his ironical use of her name
Lodowick for the Friar to determine his current whereabouts. The editors,
in their ignorance, put the Duke’s comments on the same line, not understanding
the significance of his appreciative response to Isabella’s quick
Duke. A ghostly Father, belike:
Who knows that Lodowick? (5.1.2494-6)
Lucio adds that he saw Isabella and the Friar at the prison, and that he
was a ‘very scurvy fellow’. Friar Peter asserts that Isabella has wrongly accused
the Deputy and vouches for the Friar’s reputation. He says Isabella will be
‘disproved to her eyes’, unwittingly combining her faults of body and mind
in the image of the eye, Shakespeare’s symbol for both sex and understanding.
The Duke invites Friar Peter to present his evidence but also
wonders aloud at the foolishness of the once heavenly Angelo.
Do you not smile at this, Lord Angelo?
Mariana enters masked, claiming that she is neither maid nor widow, but
has known her husband even though he did not know it. She identifies
Angelo as her husband, unmasks herself, and says it was she he had in the garden
house. Angelo is prepared to admit that five years before there was ‘speech
of marriage’ between them, but denies seeing her since. He asks the Duke to
‘give him justice’ perceiving dimly that both women were ‘set’on him.
Oh heaven, the vanity of wretched fools. (5.1.2535-6)
I did but smile till now,
The Duke, with consummate irony, agrees. Angelo will repeat his failings
by indulging his own pleasure in the course of punishment.
Now, good my Lord, give me the scope of Justice,
My patience here is touch’d: I do perceive
These poor informal women, are no more
But instruments of some more mightier member
That sets them on. Let me have way, my Lord
To find this practice out. (5.1.2609-15)
Ay, with my heart,
Angelo and Escalus are empowered to ‘find out this abuse’, and the Duke
takes the opportunity to excuse himself. Lucio has persisted in his role of
baiting the Duke and perceptively identifies the Friar/Duke as one whose
‘hood’ does not make him a ‘monk’. Escalus calls for Isabella but Lucio interjects,
eliciting from the bureaucratic Escalus a bawdy pun.
And punish them to your height of pleasure. (5.1.2616-7)
Lucio. Marry sir, I think, if you handled her privately
When the Duke reenters as Friar, he denies setting ‘these women on to
slander Lord Angelo’but sympathises with them for having to ‘put their trial
in the villain’s mouth’. Escalus takes offence at the Friar’s remarks and
threatens to ‘rack him’ but the Duke/Friar cautions him and then states his
‘business’. He reiterates his earlier claim that Vienna had become corrupt,
for which Escalus accuses him of slander and asks Lucio to repeat his accusations
against the Friar. Lucio claims the Friar called the Duke a ‘fleshmonger’
and in the scuffle to arrest him removes the Duke’s hood.
She would sooner confess, perchance publicly she’ll be
Escalus. I will go darkly to work with her.
Lucio. That’s the way: for women are light at mid
The Duke now revealed, ‘bails’ Isabella, Mariana, and Friar Peter, lays
hold of Lucio and pardons the Provost. He gives Angelo a chance to explain
himself. In his shock of surprise Angelo, as if by reflex out of his puritanical
past, attributes the qualities of Christ and God to the Duke.
Oh, my dread Lord,
Ignoring Angelo’s pathetic plea, the Duke calls Mariana forth and tells
Angelo to ‘marry her instantly’. Then acknowledging Isabella’s transition
from the excesses of idealism to real life, he says nothing has changed with
his recovery of power. The love he experienced early in the play and its
exciting expression in the exchange over ‘truth’ means his ‘heart’ is constant.
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,
To think I can be undiscerneable,
When I perceive your grace, like power divine,
Hath look’d upon my passes. Then good Prince,
No longer Session upon my shame,
But let my Trial, be mine own Confession:
Immediate sentence then, and sequent death,
Is all the grace I beg. (5.1.2748-57)
Come hither Isabel,
The Duke grants Isabella’s request that he pardon her, and with obvious
affection acknowledges her growing affection for him.
Your Friar is now your Prince: As I was then
Advertising, and holy to your business,
(Not changing heart with habit) I am still,
Attorneyed at your service. (5.1.2765-9)
And now, dear Maid, be you as free to us. (5.1.2774)
Despite his avowal of affection, the Duke still maintains the primacy of
his larger purpose of correcting the idealism in both Isabella and Angelo.
He has not yet told her that Claudio lives, but continues to use the ‘hidden
power’ that ‘brains his purpose’. He wants to take her to the point where
she is past ‘fearing death’ so that ‘life is better life’.
When Angelo returns, now married to Mariana, the Duke shocks him
by condemning him to death according to his own harsh principles. The
Duke’s strategy has been to confront the offenders with the consequences
of their puritanical idealism or ‘unpregnant’ lust. He looks to replace the
old Laws with a more effective measure for justice.
For this new-married man, approaching here,
Mariana pleads to the Duke on Angelo’s behalf and, when refused,
appeals to Isabella, but the Duke reminds them of Claudio’s ‘ghost’. Then,
as if she was the Mistress of the Sonnets, Mariana argues for the good that
comes of wrong.
Whose salt imagination yet hath wronged
Your well defended honour: you must pardon
For Mariana’s sake: But as he adjudg’d your Brother,
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred Chastity, and of promise-breach,
Thereon dependent for your Brother’s life,
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:
Then Angelo, thy fault’s thus manifested;
Which though thou would’st deny, denies thee vantage.
We do condemn thee to the very Block
Where Claudio stooped to death, and with like haste. (5.1.2788-803)
Sweet Isabel, do yet but kneel by me,
The Duke is resolute, so Isabella accepts that Claudio has been executed
according to the law and that Angelo’s intentions towards her were
Hold up your hands, say nothing: I’ll speak all.
They say best men are moulded out of faults,
And for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad: So may my husband. (5.1.2829-33)
Most bounteous Sir.
Again the Duke rejects Isabella’s plea. Instead he accuses the Provost of
executing Claudio without a ‘special warrant’. The Provost asks for pardon
and mentions the existence of Barnardine who still lives. When the Provost
leaves the stage to fetch the prisoners, Escalus the bureaucrat demonstrates
his limited insight into the puritanical mind but Angelo, who has been
through hell, has no delusions.
Look if it please you, on this man condemn’d,
As if my Brother liv’d: I partly think,
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Till he did look on me: Since it is so,
Let him not die:my Brother had but Justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died.
For Angelo, his Act did not o’er-take his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish’d by the way: thought’s are no subjects
Intents, but merely thoughts. (5.1.2836-46)
Escalus. I am sorry, one so learned, and so wise
Appropriately, when the simpleminded Barnardine enters he says
nothing, but the Duke, empathising with his attitude toward life and death
As you, Lord Angelo, have still appeared,
Should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood
And lack of temper’d judgment afterward.
Angelo. I am sorry, that such sorrow I procure,
And so deep stick in my penitent heart,
That I crave death more willingly than mercy,
’Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it. (5.1.2867-74)
Sirrah, thou art said to have a stubborn soul
When Claudio’s mask is removed to reveal that he is alive, the Duke
pardons him, and further affirms the love between himself and Isabella.
That apprehends no further than this world,
And squar’st thy life accordingly: Thou art condemn’d,
But for those earthly faults, I quit them all,
And pray thee take this mercy to provide
For better times to come: (5.1.2879-84)
If he be like your brother, for his sake
To Angelo he gives a pardon, noting the ‘quickening of his eye’. In
keeping with the Sonnet logic Angelo’s revival of sexual interest is accompanied
by a growth in his understanding, epitomised by the eye of sex and
Is he pardon’d, and for your lovely sake
Give me your hand, and say you will be mine,
He is my brother too: But fitter time for that. (5.1.2889-92)
By this Lord Angelo thinks he’s safe,
Angelo has begun to appreciate the lesson articulated in the Sonnets. The
Duke acknowledges the priority of Mariana over Angelo’s male adolescent
idealism. It is from her worth that Angelo gains his worth.
Methinks I see a quickening in his eye:
Well Angelo, your evil quits you well.
Look that you love your wife: her worth, worth yours
I find an apt remission in my self. (5.1.2893-7)
The Duke then deals with Lucio, who he says must marry Kate
Keepdown, and then be whipped and hanged. Lucio, the unrepentant
gentlemen would rather die than marry a whore, so the Duke, respecting
the birth of Lucio’s child, forgives his slanders and insists on their marriage.
The logic of increase prevails over the selfish desires of the adolescent Lucio.
As the Duke was in charge of the action and as he determined the
outcome, he has the last word. He commends Claudio to Juliet, and gives
thanks to his functionaries.
She Claudio that you wrong’d, look you restore.
He then gives a more fulsome voice to the love that crystallised during
the witty interchanges between himself and Isabella.
Joy to you Mariana, love her Angelo:
I have confess’d her, and I know her virtue.
Thanks good friend, Escalus, for thy much goodness,
There’s more behind that is more gratulate.
Thanks Provost for thy care, and secrecy,
We shall employ thee in a worthier place.
Forgive him Angelo, that brought you home
The head of Ragozine for Claudio’s,
The offence pardons itself. (5.1.2924-33)
Duke Vincentio’s proposal to Isabella, in keeping with his attitude to
Claudio and Juliet, Angelo and Mariana, and Lucio and Kate Keepdown,
is not an immediate offer of marriage. His strategy in the play has been to
address the excesses of idealism and sexuality that are a disease on Vienna.
The example of Claudio and Juliet demonstrates precisely that consensual
sex before marriage is not to be outlawed. Hence the suggestiveness of his
proposal to Isabella, in which his ‘motion’ and the chance for ‘what’s yet
behind’ to ‘meet’ as all good lovers ‘should know’, indicates that they are on
the way to the Palace to consummate their love.
I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline;
What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.
So bring us to our Palace, where we’ll show
What’s yet behind, that meet you all should know.(5.1.2933-8)
The editors, even of the Alexander text that purports to follow the Folio
of 1623, alter the meaning of the last line by changing ‘that meet’ to ‘that’s
meet’. Instead of a sexual pun on meeting and meat, the alteration causes
the phrase to read as ‘fitting or proper’, the opposite sense completely. The
emendation in the last line is the final tacit admission by the academic
commentators that they have no idea of the content of the play, because
they are ignorant of the Sonnet philosophy.
The relation of Measure for Measure to the Sonnet template
Unlike the four poems and plays considered so far in the commentaries,
Measure for Measure is not an early experiment in presenting the Sonnet
philosophy. It was written about 1604 when Shakespeare was most likely
already organising the Sonnets to present his natural logic. It does, though,
very precisely articulate the basic elements of the philosophy to a degree
echoed in the ambivalence of its reception for 300 or more years. In that
time the play has been ignored, drastically altered, denigrated and is still
classified as a ‘problem play’ by modern commentators.
Part of the difficulty for traditional interpretation is that Measure for
Measure, along with Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well that Ends Well, were
written between Hamlet and the later tragedies, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear.
Critics who would argue that Shakespeare reached the pinnacle of maturity
with the tragedies are therefore faced with explaining the relevance of the
Harold Bloom epitomises the problem of the traditional attitude toward
Shakespeare. His recent Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human gives a separate
chapter to the ‘Problem Plays’ but skips Hamlet over them to include it in
the chapter on the ‘Great Tragedies’. If, as Bloom suggests, Shakespeare’s
work developed consistently from his early plays to the heights of the ‘Great
Tragedies’ and he lost his way in the last plays, then he should explain with
greater coherence why he calls Measure for Measure his favourite play next to
Bloom’s commentary on Measure for Measure finds little of worth in any
character except the murderer Barnardine (he considers the Duke a bland
idiot), and he regards the whole play as an exhibition of nihilism. To explain
why Shakespeare apparently produced such nihilistic exercises, between two
periods of great writing that ‘invented’ what it means to be ‘human’, Bloom
can only offer unfounded opinion and psychological speculation about
problems in Shakespeare’s private life.
The extreme prejudice in the literature toward Measure for Measure,
though, has not been able to stem its rise in popularity and relevance over
the last half century. There is an inverse relation between the excessive regard
for the tragedies and the dismissive attitude toward Measure for Measure. Just
as traditional commentators single out sonnets 116 and 129 as expressions
of the Christian spirit, yet completely misread their content, the traditional
reading of the tragedies completely misreads their content. Once the content
of the Sonnets and plays is respected by appreciating their inherent
philosophy, balance can be restored to the reading and performance of all
As has been shown in the above analysis, Measure for Measure suffers particularly
from the illogical expectations generated by the platonic/Christian
paradigm. The traditional reading of Measure for Measure cannot explain how
Vincentio and Isabella achieve ‘a marriage of the true minds’, against the
background of a world full of ‘lust’ and ‘expense of Spirit’. Just as sonnets 116
and 129 gain their content and resolution from the philosophy of the
complete set of Sonnets, the play can only be understood by viewing it in the
light of the Sonnet philosophy.
Of the so-called problem plays, Measure for Measure presents an opportunity
to examine the disjunction between the Platonic/Christian expectations
of traditional commentaries and the natural logic of the Sonnet
philosophy. After Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Phoenix and the Turtle, and before the Sonnets, Measure for Measure contains a
critique of traditional illogicalities and is an object lesson in the recovery of
Shakespeare, because he converts the traditional heroine of his sources
to a religious novice, exhibits more clearly in Measure for Measure than in
any other play the relation of his natural logic to the inconsistencies and
inadequacies of traditional belief. The significant number of critical allusions
to orthodox belief in the Sonnets are brought unequivocally to the surface
in the play. Not only is the play based on the Sonnet philosophy, it also
demonstrates how to critique the illogicalities of traditional theology and
arrive at an understanding at one with the natural logic of the world.
The Duke’s role in the play is pivotal. As a dramatic persona of Shakespeare,
he exercises his power from the vantage of the natural logic of the
Sonnets. He has the advantage over the other characters of understanding
the priority of nature over the God of biblical mythology, of understanding
the priority of the female over the male, of understanding the priority of
increase over the dynamic of truth and beauty, and of understanding the
logical relation between beauty and truth.
Shakespeare, as the playwright with the mythic overview who directs the
actions of the Duke, lets the Duke assume the role of a Friar, a further step
down from Shakespeare’s comprehensive command of the situation. If the
Duke is Shakespeare minus the ability to write mythic drama, the Friar is the
Duke disguised in the idealism of a monk. The Duke’s disguise depends not
so much on his concealment in a friar’s hood but on the invisibility he
achieves by adopting the visible symbol of the illogical level of understanding
of all the other characters. The only characters who sense the double level of
the Duke/Friar are Lucio, whose dissolute life experience has taken him to
the edge of his adolescent immaturity, and Barnardine whose un-rational
near death experience has taken him to the edge of complete obstinacy.
In terms of the Sonnet logic, the Duke has the role of the Poet, who is
the persona of Shakespeare in the Sonnets. When the Duke takes the habit
of a friar, he drops himself down to the level of the idealistic Master Mistress.
Just as Shakespeare creates the role of the Master Mistress in the Sonnets to
demonstrate the inadequacies of adolescent idealism, he creates the role of
the Friar to correct the selfish excesses in Viennese society.
Nature template (Sonnet numbers)
If the Duke is the equivalent of the Poet of the Sonnets, then Juliet and
Claudio provide the base level relationship between the female and male.
They represent a level of maturity between female and male that is not out
of tune with natural logic. When Claudio expresses his attitude to death he
accepts the natural equivalence of life and death because death is but as aspect
of life. Their relationship predates the action of the play and continues
unaltered at the plays end. None of the Duke/Friar’s admonitions and
corrections at the end is directed at Juliet and Claudio.
If Juliet and Claudio represent the archetype for the logical relationship
between female and male, the pregnancy of Juliet introduces the logical
consequence of the division into sexual beings in nature, the dynamic of
increase. Because Juliet is pregnant before the play begins, the dimension of
increase in nature is the given around which the play is structured. The
natural maturity of Juliet’s pregnancy to Claudio is expressed in their
preparedness to consummate their love before the conventions of marriage
have been completed. (The significance of Shakespeare’s own experience
with his first child should not be ignored.) If Juliet’s wanted pregnancy
establishes a logical base line for persistence to posterity, Lucio and Kate
Keepdown’s child was unplanned and unwanted, so the Duke addresses
Lucio’s illogical attitude at the end of the play by marrying him off to Kate.
Once Shakespeare has created the roles of Duke Vincentio, and Juliet
and Claudio to represent the basic logic of his philosophy, and so provide
the structural framework of Measure for Measure, he can then address the
sexual profligacy and disease in Viennese society and correct the contradictions
in puritanical idealistic expectations. So, with the roles of Angelo
and Isabella, Shakespeare introduces the level of self-regard typical of the
Master Mistress of the youth sequence.
Like the youth of the Sonnets, both Angelo and Isabella suffer from the
illogical consequences of a belief system that prioritises the male over the
female. Angelo represents the male whose masculine psychology is at odds
with his feminine psychology and Isabella represents the female whose
masculine psychology dominates her feminine psychology. Angelo’s
puritanical attitude derives from his un-matured adolescent idealism. His
refusal of marriage to Mariana because of her loss of dowry is one of the
consequences of his attitude. When Isabella is about to take her vows as a
religious, she expresses the desire to live in conditions harsher than those of
her order, indicating a psychological flight from events in her past.
Isabella and Angelo enter the play as female and male representatives of
the Master Mistress of the Sonnets, the feminine and masculine components
of whose personae are skewed toward the masculine. Through the role of
the Duke, Shakespeare demonstrates over the course of the play how to
bring their inconsistent expectations into accord with the Laws of Nature
or natural logic. The Poet of the Sonnets similarly matures the adolescent
understanding of the Master Mistress so his masculine persona can be reconciled
with the priority of the Mistress.
Part of the drama of Measure for Measure involves each character achieving
the insights appropriate to their abilities. Each person in the play is led toward
their appropriate measure of understanding. Characters such as Escalus and
the Provost are thanked at the play’s end for their contribution, not because
they, like Isabella, are able to respond to the Duke eye to eye, but because
their actions throughout the play are not contrary to natural logic for the
tasks they fulfill in life. Elbow is offered assistants to better carry out his
responsibilities and oversee his misdemeanors as is Abhorson the executioner,
and Barnardine, while pigheaded, has reconciled his life with death so has
expunged his danger to society. Mariana and the other two Friars similarly
do not act in a way detrimental to natural logic. Shakespeare’s philosophy
does not proscribe any form of vocation, but does proscribe claims by any
vocation that presumes priority over the Laws of Nature.
Isabella and Angelo, Pompey and Mistress Overdone, and Lucio are the
representatives of the Viennese society who epitomise its disorder. To correct
their faults the Duke, as Shakespeare’s persona, employs the arguments and
examples that constitute the play. The words of the characters reveal their
inadequacies and they are reconciled to themselves through the deeds based
on their words.
Pompey shows his wit in his unconscious awareness that language is
logically erotic, based as it is on the sexual dynamic out of nature. Pompey,
as the namesake of a ruined city, and Mistress Overdone as the namesake
for excessive sexual license leading to disease and crime, need their behaviour
corrected, not their language. Lucio, as the youthful intermediary between
the bawdy life and intellectual insight, is capable of lively language and
penetrating insights into the Duke’s nature and motives but must first answer
to the consequence of his profligacy, the child of Kate Keepdown.
Angelo is a man whose language and deeds are both at odds with natural
logic. His language is lifeless and his deeds are life denying. The deconstruction
of his puritanical façade and his complete embarrassment before
the Duke and his bureaucratic assistants begins the process of reform. The
Duke’s sentences him to the one cure that could permanently restore his
natural logic: he is married to a woman who loves him.
Isabella undergoes the most dramatic transformation. From a young
woman fleeing from her own sexuality she has to face the repressed sexuality
of Angelo and, when faced with the death of her bother, confront the
illogical value she places on her chastity. These events, and the meeting with
the Duke/Friar, lead her to recover her innate ability to appreciate the logic
of truth and beauty. The moment she discovers her facility with language
is the moment they fall irrecoverably in love. Shakespeare expresses through
the interrelationship between the Duke and Isabella the quintessential level
of understanding he argues for in the whole set of 154 sonnets.
And, in Vincentio and Isabella, Shakespeare gives voice to the logic of
truth and beauty that occupies 140 of the 154 sonnets. Measure for Measure
as a play rejoices in the philosophy articulated so precisely and poetically in
The role of the Duke is central to the expression of Shakespeare’s
philosophy. The Duke is given a prescience that other characters lack. He
expresses his awareness by identifying himself as a pseudo-dramatist early in
the play and directs the action from beginning to end fully cognizant of the
need to exercise patience and understanding, or as he says to Lucio, ‘it is
wrong to speak before your time’. The presence of the Duke as a putative
dramatist evokes the instances in other plays where there are theatric subplots.
And the presence of mock arguments, such as when Pompey asks
Abhorson for proof, point to the whole play offering a critique of traditional
apologetics as the use of syllogistics to validate opinion and belief.
Traditional attempts to understand the so-called ‘problem play’ Measure
for Measure founder on the expectation that Shakespeare conforms in some
way to the illogicalities of biblical or Platonic thought. The Sonnets offer a
philosophy that avoids the inconsistencies of traditional belief. It is the only
basis from which to understand the content of the play.
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Venus and Adonis
Rape of Lucrece
The Phoenix and the Turtle
A Lover's Complaint
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure