One reason for why Hamlet is worthy of the inexhaustible attention it receives is because it is a play of questions, most of them unanswerable, and most of them iconic of the human condition (I mean, who isn’t wondering where the Polonius is at supper?)
Measure For Measure was written approximately three years following Hamlet, and it is one of Shakespeare’s underrated plays. It is designated a “problem play” because people cannot come to terms with the corrupted comedies Shakespeare wrote following Hamlet’s influence. Like its predecessor, Measure For Measure is defined by the questions it asks, rather than its characters or plots. So, to understand Measure For Measure we don’t need themes, or symbols, but the right questions to ask.
• Why does Duke Vincentio leave Vienna and return as a Friar?
• Why does Isabella leave the convent?
And the most famous question:
• Why is Isabella silent following the Duke’s “proposal?”
The third question has been written about extensively. I can provide my own take, but would rather put my current efforts toward the first two. By exploring the paths of Vincentio and Isabella, I hope to show how any simple reading of this play is problematic.
Why does Duke Vincentio leave Vienna and return as a Friar?
The play begins with Duke Vincentio clandestinely leaving Vienna and placing all his power in the hands of Lord Angelo, a man who can fittingly be described as Malvolio following our last glimpse of him at the end of Twelfth Night. Angelo (and others) are led to believe that the Duke has gone to Poland for some arbitrary Duke business that is never expanded upon. He has gone to Friar Thomas to obtain the necessary disguise so that he may return to the city as a Friar. Why? The answer is seemingly simple.
We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen 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 it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; 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.
It rested in your grace
To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleased:
And it in you more dreadful would have seem’d
Than in Lord Angelo.
I do fear, too dreadful:
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 the ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander. And to behold his sway,
I will, as ’twere a brother of your order,
Visit both prince and people: therefore, I prithee,
Supply me with the habit and instruct me
How I may formally in person bear me
Like a true friar. More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you;
Only, this one: Lord Angelo is precise;
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. (I.iii)
If we believe exactly what is presented here, the Duke leaves the city because he has let the laws become too relaxed, and they must be reinforced. This, understandably, will anger the people who have been enjoying their unparalleled liberties. The Duke does not want to be hated, or slandered, and figures that if Angelo acts as the enforcer, which he knows Angelo will, the citizenry will turn loose their ire on Angelo not the Duke. Meanwhile, he returns as a Friar so he can enjoy watching the plan he has set in motion, and to satisfy his philosophic curiosity as to whether “power change purpose.” If we accept this picture, then the Duke is a terrible ruler, putting him alongside King Ferdinand (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Prospero (The Tempest) in regards to rulers more concerned with their intellectual quests than the governing of their state. If he only wanted to spy on Angelo, why disguise as a Friar and not an inconspicuous man? And we quickly see that he has no intention of watching from the shadows. The Duke becomes muddled in everyone’s affairs as soon as he enters the city. At the end of the above passage, the Duke says:
More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you
This phrase (not word for word) appears throughout Shakespeare’s cannon. In certain plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, this turn of phrase suggests that the characters will be informed of events that the audience has already witnessed (and subsequently retold by the “brief” Friar Lawrence.) A characteristic of Shakespeare’s later plays such as this one, involves information that is not explicitly told but alluded to, forcing the reader/audience to piece things together. So “I’ll hammer it out.”
If we accept this play as a comedy, through and through, then the Friar’s position is simply to keep the train on its track. As we watch the misfortunes of the play’s “heroes” unfold, we know, knowing that this is a comedy, that despite what happens, all must end well. Claudio cannot die, Isabella cannot be so wronged, and Angelo must be punished: the trope demands it and the Friar will see it done. This is why he does everything in his power to undermine Angelo’s actions.
But this is flat and stale, and unworthy of a post-Hamlet world.
Perhaps the Friar is not simply the Deus ex machina present to provide a convenient comic ending. Instead of seeing him as the image of a benevolent Being, why not view him as the wrath of an angered Being? Why not shift the focus from protecting Claudio, Juliet, Isabella, and Mariana to punishing the wrong-doers, Angelo and Lucio? This would lend more clarity to the final scene.
In V.i, the Duke “returns” to Vienna, gathers everyone together at the city gate in order to witness a game of “he said, she said” between Escalus and Angelo, and Isabella and Mariana. Lucio (the bawd and wit of the play) pipes in once in a while with a helpful comment to defend the women, and is constantly berated by the Duke. The Duke takes Angelo’s side, deems the women mad, and the villainous plot devised by the Friar. He orders the Friar brought forth for punishment, and conveniently slips off to allow Angelo to meet out justice. He returns as the Friar, and attacks Angelo with more verbal force than he attached Isabella and Mariana as the Duke.
But, O, poor souls,
Come you to seek the lamb here of the fox?
Good night to your redress! Is the duke gone?
Then is your cause gone too. The duke’s unjust,
Thus to retort your manifest appeal,
And put your trial in the villain’s mouth
Which here you come to accuse. (V.i)
My business in this state
Made me a looker on here in Vienna,
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’er-run the stew; laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanced, that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop,
As much in mock as mark. (V.i)
This last passage reveals his full purpose as returning as the Friar, to satisfy his curiosity that power indeed does corrupt. Sure, he may have let the state grow like Hamlet’s unweeded garden, but Anglo is the thing rank and gross that possesses it by trying to enforce the laws as he did.
So why pull this final trick? Why not confront Angelo as the Duke to begin with instead of putting Isabella and Mariana through the ringer? As I’ll explore in a bit more detail later, this scene (and perhaps this play?) has nothing to do with Isabella and Mariana, but they are the pawns in the game between the Duke and Angelo.
In The Merchant of Venice, Portia comes to the trial disguised as a learned doctor. She knows exactly how the events will play out. She allows Antonio to get to the brink of death before she turns the tables on Shylock. Is this to test Antonio? No. It is to provide Shylock with every possibility for redemption. She uses the defense of Christian mercy to persuade Shylock to give up his case, and then she uses money. When all opportunities are spent, when he has sealed his fate, then, and only then, does she condemn him. Some see Portia as the epitome of Christian virtue – I will challenge this at another time.
This exact scene plays itself out again at the city gate of Vienna. Here, however, the banner of Christian mercy has been abandoned. Portia may have been satisfied if Shylock took her initial offer – probably not – but Vincentio certainly has no intention of allowing Angelo to redeem himself. The Duke helps Angelo dig himself further into sin while playing the Duke, incites Angelo and Lucio further as the Friar, so that when he is unhooded, the guilty parties know for certain that they are truly guilty, and truly condemned. The Duke did not return as a Friar to simply witness the corruption of the state, or even to save Claudio and Isabella, but to prove to all the lords he gathered around for this last scene that, despite any flaws in the state, he is a good ruler when contrasted to Angelo, who was once regarded as the most virtuous:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee. (I.i)
The farther Angelo falls, the higher Vincentio rises. What does that say about him as a ruler or the future of his state? He may have spared lives, and restored order, but in the theoretically tragic Act VI, the citizenry shall be as silent as Isabella in the wake of his philosophic tyranny.
The Trials of Isabella
I have given Vincentio his due, let’s shift to the tertiary focus of this play: Isabella. She has been viewed heavily through a feminism theory lens, which is understandable. She is certainly an interesting Shakespeare female. Her closest Shakespearean partner in chronology and likeness is Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well, with one key difference. Helena, like Rosalind from As You Like It, has a strong influence over the action of the play and the surrounding characters. Isabella has little to no external agency, which, with a statement like that, may make it seem as though she is a weak or secondary character. And indeed, as I have tried to illustrate, she is a secondary character, used to prop other characters up rather than further her own goals. The only agency Isabella has is over her own body and her own virtue. In the end, because this is a comedy, she doesn’t have to follow through with her decision: this does not, however, take away from the fact that she must make a decision to willingly surrender her body, and everything that comes with it in a Christian society, to a man she despises.
In a black and white reading of the play, she must agree to be raped. In any reading of the play, she must surrender all power she has.
In any modern context, and in many modern adaptations of this play (of which there are too few, and fewer good ones) this becomes a primary focus of the play. Whatever comedic tropes Shakespeare throws at this play, and whatever cat and mouse game the Duke plays with Angelo, Isabella’s internal struggles stand out as the most human.
I can honestly accuse myself of looking too close into Shakespeare, and making a mountain out of a mud hill: this may be such a case. You have been warned.
I am fascinated by characters’ first lines (or first appearance) and how that sets their path for the play. We first see Isabella as she is about to enter into a nunnery, as a nun – removing herself from the earthly world to devote herself to God.
And have you nuns no farther privileges?
Are not these large enough?
Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more;
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.
Knowing nothing about Isabella at this point, how can we not have the same reaction as Francisca when Isabella asks if the nuns have no further privileges? However strong her piety is, however well-intentioned Isabella may be as a character, Shakespeare begins her journey with this greedy question (even if misinterpreted). I like to think that this moment, as well as a few others sprinkled throughout the play, is meant to save Isabella from being a cardboard cutout: the one-note voice of Christian virtue. Or perhaps this first glimpse serves as a synecdoche of her character and indeed the play: a world caught between the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues. Isabella’s initial question may suggest Patience, but it comes across as Greed.
Isabella is thrown off her course when Lucio informs her of her brother’s imprisonment. Isabella must now team up with a bawd in order to save her brother. Lucio tells her to persuade Lord Angelo to free Claudio: “Assay the power you have” (I.iv). Given Luccio’s character, and the following speech:
when maidens sue,
Men give like gods; but when they weep and kneel,
All their petitions are as freely theirs
As they themselves would owe them.
It is clear that Luccio wants Isabella to win Angelo over with her body, which we know by her “cheek-roses” is virginal.
I am not suggesting any form of victim blaming here. I do not mean that Isabella’s initial greed and her body are what set her up to be abused by all the men around her. But I do not agree with those who hold her up as the pinnacle of virtue and purity. Ophelia, the dutiful daughter went mad and drowned, and with her drowned the imperfect perfect woman. Desdemona, Helena, Cressida, Cordelia, Hermione: Isabella joins in the cast of great three dimensional Shakespeare women, but can only do so with a tinge of humanity: a tinge of imperfection.
So where is Isabella’s humanity? It is not, like Angelo’s, in any sexual desire. Nor is it, like her brother’s, a longing for freedom. She demonstrates no craving for power or material goods. The ends of her questioning of whether the nuns have more privileges are for the desire to ask questions. Isabella is like the Duke in this regard: she is driven by curiosity. She is an intellect: her speeches more eloquent than the others in the play. Portia played the lawyer, and did it quite cheaply: Isabella uses her brother’s case to be a lawyer – to argue the philosophical and ethical matters that drive the law.
Well; what’s your suit?
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
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.
Well; the matter?
I have a brother is condemn’d to die:
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
[Aside] Heaven give thee moving graces!
Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor.
O just but severe law!
I had a brother, then. Heaven keep your honour! (II.ii)
Isabella seems to lose her sortie. There are faults in the world and it is the fault not the man that must be condemned. Angelo cannot buy into the logic of this seemingly absurd suit and tells her so. And yet, what Isabella goes on to demonstrate is that sometimes the action can be separated from the man. Angelo can pardon Claudio but he doesn’t, and is justified in this decision because he has removed himself from the laws and his actions in executing them. If Angelo is separated from the action, why not Claudio?
But this is a play, ad not a great philosophic treatise – so something has to happen.
[Aside to ISABELLA]
Ay, touch him; there’s the vein.
It is unclear whether Isabella actually touches Angelo, or if Lucio is speaking metaphorically: given Lucio’s character, and his persuasions for Isabella to better persuade Angelo, a literal touch is not so unbelievable. Isabella reaches for intellectual debate, but in her either naiveté or realization of her power, does not win Angelo over with her words, but with her body. She has persuaded him: he will free Claudio, if she sleeps with him.
What resolves the plot and provides the comedic ending is the classic bed trick. Isabella switches places with Marianna, who Angelo promised to marry but abandoned. But as I stated, the simple comic tropes are unimportant in this play. The questions that are stirred in the audience’s mind as they read or watch Isabella try to determine which path is the lesser of two evils – or the questions stirred by the Duke/Friar’s morally ambiguous plots of political retribution: this the heart of the play.
Measure for Measure is a world of shifting sands. No one has a clear path: no decision is clear-cut. The Duke is not perfect, Angelo is not wholly evil, and Isabella is not full of maidenly purity. The world is inherently corrupt and we must navigate our way through it with no clear directive.
Most of Shakespeare’s play presuppose the idea of Fate or some divine Being. Despite the heavy Christian undertone of this play, including the fact that the title is a scriptural reference: this is perhaps his most secular play. What happens when Man is the highest authority: what happens when we realizes that the rule of God has no sway? The inability to place this play as a clear comedy reflects this very chaos: the world isn’t a comedy or tragedy – not since Hamlet: it is a mess.
Draw a line from Hamlet’s breakdown of the natural order and King Lear’s vision of nihilism, and Measure for Measure stands in the centre: people clinging to their compass to navigate the shifting sands.