So here’s what happens in Measure for Measure: A man with a reputation for perfect integrity and ironclad morals is placed in a position of power. Soon thereafter, he initiates detailed conversations about porn stars with a female subordinate and then asks her if there is a pubic hair on her Coke can. Then a different male in a position of power arranges to be alone in his office with a twenty-four year-old intern, whom he flatters and flirts with until one thing leads to another until the entire nation – whoops, I mean kingdom – is talking about her semen-streaked dress from the Gap. And then another holder of elected office takes a bunch of naked pictures of himself on his cell phone and sends them out on his Twitter account, and then the former CEO of a major pizza company seeks high office, and a couple dozen of his former female employees come forward to say…
Oops. Wrong story. But you get the idea: this is a play about corruption, power, and sex. And it is hard to imagine a world in which Measure for Measure does not seem “modern.”
I jotted down a lot of thoughts and reactions while I was reading the play, and I’m going to present them in a loosely organized fashion. Maybe the end result will read like an organized review – or maybe before I post it I’ll go back and add some bullet points before each idea so it will look like I meant it to be all disjointed and that incoherence is just one of the many facets of my genius. We’ll see.
Before I even started to reread the play, I was intrigued by the connection between “measure” in the title and Shakespeare’s habit of writing his plays partially in meter. The two words are etymologically related: metered verse is “measured language.” Now, I know that the title is first and foremost an allusion to Matthew 7:1-3: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why see’st thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, and perceives not the beam that is in thy own eye?” – so perhaps my observation about the connection between “meter” and “measure” is a red herring. But I kind of don’t think so – and I wonder as well about the word “mete” in the passage from Matthew. To mete is to divide something into precise portions exactly according to what each recipient is due – just as meter arranges language into intricate and precise patterns.
Shakespeare’s use of poetry and prose to distinguish between opposite states of mind has always been an interest of mine. Sometimes the upper class characters speak in poetry while the commoners speak in prose. Sometimes characters speak in poetry when they are telling the truth and in prose when they are lying. Poetry can represent authority, age, sanity, and sobriety; in contrast, prose will represent lawlessness, youth, insanity, and drunkenness. And of course it is true that writing in meter requires one to slow down, contemplate, consider the weight of each phrase, and consider synonyms or other alternatives when one’s first words do not quite fit the pattern (although, from my days as a grad student in poetry, I can say that it is possible to write enough blank verse that it starts to become instinctive – iambic pentameter is the English language’s “heartbeat,” after all). In this play even more than in others, blank verse seems to indicate sneakiness and “measured” words and thoughts. Or maybe it’s just that everything in this play signifies sneakiness – that’s possible too.
Two characters seem to move most easily between prose and poetry: Lucio and the duke. In addition to being linguistically versatile, these two characters also serve as liaisons between the other characters in the play in a variety of ways. I remember being taught (maybe by Fr. Murphy in AP English, or maybe by a later professor – not sure) that Lucio means “light,” and that any time Shakespeare puts a character in a play named Lucio we should assume that this character will “shine light” on the shady actions of others – and in this play, it is Lucio who calls the duke “the old fantastical duke of dark corners” (IV.iii.153) and who ultimately unmasks him. The duke, on the other hand, is a fundamentally good man who nevertheless represents everything that is wrong with Vienna. He leaves the city in the hands of Angelo – and, as far as I can tell, it is never clear in this play whether the duke knows what a horrible person Angelo is when he chooses him as deputy – and immediately comes back dressed as a friar. As the friar, he forms the fundamental symbol of the play: a pious and holy exterior that hides a corrupt interior. (Does anyone else find it ironic, for example, that the supposedly “absent” duke is on stage in almost every scene and has more lines than any other character in the play?) In the case of the duke, his interior is not cruel or evil; his corruption takes the form of cowardice and a tendency toward inaction rather than action. In addition to his hypocrisy, Angelo’s failing is his need to place abstract virtues above the concrete needs and actions of real people – and in some ways the Duke, while a nicer guy, makes the same mistake when he sets up all the strange punishment marriages in Act V.
Lucio exposes the friar’s real identity by baiting his ego. Somehow or other – although I don’t find absolute proof for this assumption anywhere in the text – Lucio always seems to know that the friar is the duke. A part of me says Well, of COURSE he knows – if Barack Obama put the equivalent of a burlap sack over his head and spent a week wandering around Washington telling everyone else to do, don’t you think most citizens of that city would be able to figure out who he was? But what’s more important, of course, is that Lucio is just Lucio. His name means light, and he just has a strange access to the truth that the other characters in this play seem to lack. In Act III, Lucio tells the “friar” that the duke has played “a mad fantastical trick” (III.i.358), suggesting immediately thereafter that it was irresponsible of the duke to leave, thereby “usurp[ing] the beggary he was never born to” (III.i.359). In other words, in being born into privilege, the duke has a responsibility to serve as a leader. In abandoning the city, the duke wants to enjoy the freedom of a beggar without enduring any of the hardships of a beggar’s life. The duke’s determination to defend Angelo in this scene – and throughout most of the remainder of the play – is puzzling, although it is true that the duke’s true feelings toward Angelo are very unclear throughout the play. Lucio also flatters the duke – “Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing of a thousand” (III.i.378-80) – and jabs at his manhood – “I never heard the absent duke much detected for woman, he was not inclined that way” (III.i.383-4) – trying to lure him out of hiding. The end result of Lucio’s baiting is that the duke ends up defending his own leadership – “Let him be but testimonied in his own bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the envious a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier: therefore you speak unskillfully, or, if your knowledge be more, it is much darkened in your malice” (III.i.403-6) – which, if it is true that one of his reasons for pretending to leave the city is a lack of confidence in his own leadership or a sense that he has failed to successfully police Vienna, could be just the form of therapy that the duke most needs.
It is also Lucio who continually brings to the attention of both the duke and the audience the horrible irony of inflicting death as punishment for fornication. This play is based on the idea that people must reap what they sow – whether this takes the form of the Old Testament idea of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” or the New Testament’s “judge not, lest ye be judged” and “do unto others as you would have them do until you,” and when the duke wants to compliment Angelo, he uses the word “precise” (I.iv.53). Yet according to this moral code, punishing illicit sexual activity with death makes no sense. The only reason that Angelo even knows of Claudio’s sin is the fact that Juliet is pregnant. Therefore, for the act of creating life, Claudio will lose his own life. Not only does Lucio point out to the duke that Angelo “will unpeople the province with continency” (III.i.428), but he also points out that sex is one of the great unifiers of humanity: “Yes, in good sooth, the vice is of a great kindred; it is well allied, but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down” (III.i.365-7). Even Angelo, of course, is linked to the rest of humanity through his penchant for sex, although in him this desire is corrupt and destructive.
For a play so focused on the tension between secrecy and outward action, this play relies surprisingly little on soliloquies. I had my eyes peeled for soliloquies when I was reading, largely because I read recently in Stephen Greenblatt’s great biography Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare that in the year 1600 Shakespeare mastered the ability to convey “interiority” better than any writer in history. This statement is astounding, not only for the grandiosity of its claim but also because Greenblatt so precisely pinpoints the exact year in which this gift of Shakespeare’s began to manifest itself. Measure for Measure was written in 1604, so as I read I looked for signs of this gift for showing the private inner workings of his characters – and I assumed that I would find this evidence largely in soliloquies, since the whole point of a soliloquy is to convey the character’s genuine inner thoughts. Greenblatt points out in his biography that Shakespeare used the soliloquy as a technique long before 1600 but that these earlier soliloquies felt artificial, like some playwright trying to convey interiority instead of like interiority itself. And when I think of some of the soliloquies in Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, I have to assume that Greenblatt’s theory is fundamentally correct. However, Shakespeare keeps soliloquies at minimum here: Mistress Overdone has an extremely short prose soliloquy in I.ii; Angelo has a longer one in blank verse at the end of II.ii and two shorter ones at the beginning of II.iv (these can probably be read as one longer soliloquy briefly interrupted by the entrance of a servant); Isabella has a short one at the end of II.iv; the duke has an interesting one at the end of III.i that for some reason is written in iambic tetrameter instead of pentameter and then an extremely brief six-line soliloquy in IV.i; and finally Angelo has another short one at the end of IV.iv. In this play’s quantity of soliloquies it may seem to rival Shakespeare’s other plays, but in most cases these soliloquies do not have the length or meditative weight that I associate with the soliloquies in Hamlet, Macbeth, and other plays, and they don’t seem to drive the plot of the play forward in any kind of meaningful way. Angelo rebukes himself for his lustful advances toward Isabella, but then nothing in the plot of the play changes as a result of his contemplation.
Many of the soliloquies in this play are very short – sometimes only four or five lines long – and characters are constantly being interrupted in their contemplation. That, of course, is part of what makes this play a comedy – every time someone starts to think serious inward thoughts, Mistress Overdone shows up to make a syphilis joke and one of Angelo’s lackeys arrives to arrest someone. As a result, the play has a cramped feeling, as if we as the reader or audience is present on some narrow medieval cobbled street, packed in with all kinds of crazy prostitutes and drunken criminals and fake friars to the point at which we can barely hear ourselves think. And that is part of the “problem” of this play – that its situation allows little time for contemplation. Maybe that’s why the duke went into hiding – he just wanted a break. Someone should have offered him a couple of weeks at the Bush ranch in Texas.
This play seems to put forth the troubling idea that human beings are somehow interchangeable. The duke thinks nothing of leaving Angelo to do his job for him (How can he do that?? I don’t even like it when substitute teachers look in my file cabinet!). Then comes all the fun when the duke orchestrates the “bed trick” (in which Angelo’s spurned bride Mariana is substituted for Isabella, thereby consummating her “marriage” with Angelo and protecting Isabella’s all-important virginity) and the “head trick” (in which FIRST the duke arranges for Abhorson the executioner to chop off the head of Barnardine – a “dissolute prisoner,” according to the dramatis personae in my edition – instead of Claudio’s BUT THEN when Barnardine objects to this scenario he remembers that there happens to be a dead pirate lying around (literally!) and arranges for Abhorson to just chop off the dead pirate’s head and save Claudio and Barnardine both a lot of unneeded stress. Even well into Act V, the duke continues to switch back and forth from his friar’s costume to his duke’s costume at will. The end result – definitely one of the darker elements of this “comedy,” in my opinion – is that Shakespeare seems to send a message that individuality is not important, that we are all essentially pawns in a game played by the bold, the cunning, and the powerful. And while I know enough of Shakespeare’s life to understand why he may have developed such a cynical point of view, it doesn’t at all match the attitude I’m used to seeing from Shakespeare – one that celebrates life and diversity in all its forms and enjoys seeing the powerless triumph over the powerful.
But that is what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. Like Walt Whitman, he is vast – he contains multitudes.
The endings of Shakespeare’s comedies almost always bother me on some level, and this one bothers me more than most. A traditional comic plot, according to Aristotle, is supposed to challenge the values of the society the comedy comes from (that would be the whole cutting-off-people’s-heads-for-having-sex business, in case you missed it) and then end with a resolution that ultimately upholds those values. In other words, the audience is supposed to feel an anxiety throughout the play because some fundamental value that lies at the heart of their society is about to be toppled or overthrown – and then they’re supposed to feel relief when society is in fact not overthrown but actually strengthened at the end. This is why all of Shakespeare’s comedies (and many modern comedies – think about it) end in marriage: because marriage is for the vast majority of human beings the ultimate symbol of safety: marriage provides (or tries to provide) economic security, companionship, the union of extended families into a clan-like relationship of protection – and, most of all, at least in this play, it provides a framework in which the GREAT SIN of sexual intercourse becomes not only acceptable but sacred. In this play, though, only Claudio and Juliet seem likely to be happy in their marriage. Imagine Angelo and Mariana’s first night at home – what will they talk about? Their marriage is already consummated, but Mariana KNOWS that Angelo THOUGHT HE WAS HAVING SEX WITH ISABELLA at the time. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Angelo has previously backed out on his marriage contract to Mariana because her family lost its money and could no longer afford her dowry. As my students would say: AWK-WARD! And then there’s Isabella, who wants nothing more than to be a nun and has somehow been bamboozled into marrying the duke – who probably won’t be a terrible husband, but still. She’ll always wonder when he plans to go out for a pack of cigarettes one morning and turn into Friar Lodowick again for a while. It’s no way to live. And Lucio and Kate Keepdown will probably be OK – if by “OK” we mean that they will likely continue living just the way they’ve always been living: hanging around the whorehouse, probably taking a variety of lovers, having syphilis, getting arrested every so often, and managing for the most part to be happy in spite of it all.
I like this play even though I find it problematic on almost every level. And while in most cases I think these “problems” are intentional on Shakespeare’s part in a successful attempt to convey human ambiguity, I do think he fails to fully characterize the duke in a way that makes this character fully human. The duke is clearly intelligent and thoughtful – possibly too thoughtful to deal with the challenges of leadership on a day-to-day basis – yet ultimately his actions do not make sense. Even at the very end of the play, I fail to understand why he continues to defend Angelo, and his determination to stay in disguise in Acts III and IV and concoct all kinds of crazy plans to chop off dead people’s heads and whatnot while real people are on death row for God’s sake is just unconscionable. But I do think this play is a great one for an AP class – especially if the students have already been exposed to one or two of the traditional comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, even The Merchant of Venice) and to a couple of tragedies. This play is a great entry point into a discussion of the subtleties of genre and also, of course, to the subtleties of character and human behavior that remain – and I suspect will always remain – highly applicable to the world around us.