Holy Syphilis Jokes, Batman!: Thoughts on Act I of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

So I’ve read Act I of Measure for Measure and I already have a lot to say…

I remember being intrigued by this play when I was a senior in high school. And “intrigued” is about as positive as I ever got about Shakespeare when I was seventeen. I was a late bloomer in this particular area of literary studies – even in college I put off my required Shakespeare course until I was a senior, convinced that I still wouldn’t “get it,” and I remember being surprised that mostly the plays made sense. I’ve already mentioned that I wasn’t exactly a patient adolescent. If I couldn’t make sense of a book easily on first read, I didn’t have much use for it (but, of course, that didn’t stop me from waxing philosophical about its themes and symbolism…).

I both sympathize with the Duke and find his abandonment of the people of Vienna completely unconscionable. This is going to sound very silly, but what I thought of when I read his speeches to Angelo and Escalus in Act I, scene i was the period of time leading up to my medical leave from work this past winter. The Duke says, “Our haste from hence is of so quick condition / That it prefers itself and leaves unquestioned / Matters of needful value” (I.ii.57-9). In other words, I can’t deal with sticking around any longer. I have to get out of here NOW, and I don’t have time to make sure all the details are in place before I go. Throughout December and January of the last school year, I had talked with my assistant head of school about the fact that my health was falling apart, I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t focus on my work, and I was in too much pain to grade papers. We both knew that the medical leave was necessary, but I kept saying, “Maybe next week.” Then one Wednesday, I went into her office and whispered, It has to start NOW. The fact that I could so easily identify with the Duke here made me question his motives in general. Why exactly does he feel that he needs to leave Vienna in the vicious hands of Angelo? We learn later that he has ruled Vienna for fourteen years, and in scene iv he seems to be questioning the nature of power and authority and also contemplating the fact that he is aging (using the words “grave” and “wrinkled,” for example, to describe his purpose [I.iv.5]). I hate to rely on a cliché, but there seems to be a mid-life crisis of some kind going on with the Duke – he’s “tired of himself, tired of this town,” to paraphrase Tom Petty – and he has become very cynical about the power he holds (even though he’s always tended to hold on to the reins of power rather loosely). In addition, in both scenes i and iv, the Duke identifies himself as an introvert, and he seems to be exhausted by and resentful of the many responsibilities that require him to be in the midst of crowds of people.

So in other words, I can identify with this Duke really well – and I wasn’t really prepared for this. I remember thinking that the Duke was irresponsible to leave Vienna in the hands of Angelo – both when I was a high school senior and when I read it with my own seniors about four years ago. But my perceptions have changed, at least for now.

Act I, scene ii – like the comparable scene in so many of Shakespeare’s plays – consists of the banter of clowns and whores. I remember the fabulously named “Mistress Overdone,” but what I didn’t remember from my previous readings of this play is the extreme preponderance of syphilis jokes. Let’s see: we’ve got the references to “French velvet” (I.ii.33), “most painful feeling of speech” (I.ii.34-5), “tainted” (I.ii.40), “a French crown” (I.ii.47), “thy bones are hollow” (I.ii.51) – to name just a few. The message is clear: sex is poison. Shakespeare constantly reminds us of the connection between sex and disease, and all discussions of vice and virtue are couched in sexual terms, as if human morality could take no other form. (As an aside, I’ll mention that the introduction to my edition of this play includes the fact that when the famous Victorian censors Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler were redacting Shakespeare’s plays to remove all references to sexuality, Measure for Measure was the only play that they ultimately gave up on; they eventually determined that there was no way to edit out the sexual references while still keeping the play’s plot intact. And it’s true – Act I would be about ten lines long if all sexual references were edited out.)

Scene ii also concerns itself with moral equivocation. Lucio’s reference to the “sanctimonious pirate” (I.ii.7) who “went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scraped one out of the table” (I.ii.8-9) not only foreshadows Angelo’s later hypocrisy but also sets off a bantering conversation about the way we manipulate moral systems to suit our own needs and desires. The commandment that the sanctimonious pirate doesn’t want to be reminded of, of course, is “Thou shalt not steal.” The first gentleman justifies this omission by explaining that “twas a commandment to command the captain and all the rest from their functions: they put forth to steal” (I.ii.12-14). In other words, adhering to this commandment strictly would put the pirate out of work – and that would never do. Similarly, the gentlemen comments that “there’s not a soldier of us all that, in the thanksgiving before meat, do relish the petition well that prays for peace” (I.ii.14-15). A soldier who prays for peace is also praying to be out of work. These jocular remarks are made painfully real in the ways they effect Mistress Overdone, who will be out of work soon because all the whorehouses in the suburbs of Vienna are being shut down.

Scenes iii and iv continue this meditation on justice, authority, and power in more serious terms. Claudio has been condemned to death because his lover, Juliet, is pregnant – and Vienna has a law on the books against fornication that has not been enforced in nineteen years. According to Claudio, he and Juliet are married in every way except legally (again – the letter vs. the spirit of the law is important here) because she cannot afford to give him a dowry. Claudio sends Lucio to speak to his sister Isabella, who, he thinks, stands the best chance to talking Angelo out of his decision to execute Claudio.

In scene iv, the Duke announces his plans to dress himself up as a friar (a disguise of holiness – get it?) and spy on the city when everyone thinks he is on vacation. While my initial reaction is to condemn this action as sneaky and irresponsible, I remember all the times I left my classroom for a moment to make photocopies or run a quick errand and then tiptoed back and listened to my students from the hallway when they didn’t know I was there – to see if they had stayed on task or were goofing off. So maybe the Duke’s actions are understandable, sort of. But there is much more at stake for the residents of Vienna than for my students. I also find it interesting that the Duke, who supposedly is so contemplative and wise, ultimately has misjudged Angelo, whom he describes as someone who “stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / that his blood flows, or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone” (I.iv. 54-6). It seems as if the Duke is testing not only the townspeople but also Angelo.

I don’t have much to say about scene v, in which Isabella is introduced in the act of checking to make sure that the convent she is about to join is strict enough to meet her standards, except to say that when Lucio asks her to speak to Angelo on Claudio’s behalf, he urges her to “assay the power [she has]” (I.v.82). What kind of power is this? Religious power, since Isabella is becoming a nun? Or sexual power, because Isabella is young and virginal and innocent? Lucio later says, “When maidens sue, / Men give like gods” (I.v.87-8). I’m interested to keep track of Lucio’s remarks from here on out and try to figure out exactly how much he knows here.

So to sum up: Sex in this play is poison, and it also carries a certain power. Angelo has just been given absolute power over the city (backed up by the statutes and by the absent duke), and there is a certain “poison” to this power as well because it will be misused. The duke is having a personal and professional crisis of some kind. This play strikes me as one of Shakespeare’s most cynical.

More to come…

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This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Authors, Drama, Reviews by Bethany, William Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Holy Syphilis Jokes, Batman!: Thoughts on Act I of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I just finished Measure for Measure. I got on a roll and read straight through without doing a midstream entry. I have some thoughts about the Duke, and not all of them are favorable. I got the impression he took off so Angelo could “fix” things in Vienna for him so he didn’t have to be seen as the bad guy. That’s somewhere in act I. Anyway. I’ve got 2 books to review so I should probably get to that…

    • lfpbe says:

      Based on Act I, I think the Duke’s motives are very ambiguous – a breakdown or midlife crisis/sudden irresistable urge to get away; the desire to let Angelo be the bad guy and fix all the problems in Vienna; and the desire to “test” both the people of Vienna and Angelo himself are all options.

      Hey – which AP book do you want to read in September? It’s your turn to choose.

      • Jill says:

        I’ve been thinking about it, and I think we should read Lord Jim for September. I was thinking about Portrait of a Lady but I’d rather save Henry James for the dead of winter, when there’s nothing at all else to do but sit at home and read.

      • lfpbe says:

        OK, Lord Jim it is for September. Are you OK with Madame Bovary for Oct?

      • badkitty1016 says:

        Madame Bovary is fine for October. I never read that one either! How exciting!

  2. lfpbe says:

    Yeah, I didn’t read it either. And then I didn’t read it again in grad school. That time, though, I tried to read it and found that all of the available translations were awful. I was constantly ordering new ones and they were always impossible to get through. I’ve heard that the new Lydia Davis translation is good. You might want to pick that one up – or at least read the first chapter or so of whichever edition you get before you buy it.

    • badkitty1016 says:

      But I still have the translation that I bought when I was going to read it for extra credit in high school! I draw the line at buying multiple copies of the same book. At least, I do when I remember that I own the book…

      • lfpbe says:

        That’s your choice – but seriously, you might want to check the new translation out. It’s not the same book if it’s not the same translation – that, at least, is one lesson I learned memorably in grad school.

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