A Dreame of Passion

Barbara Everett on the peculiar comedy of ‘Measure for Measure’

About fifty or sixty years ago, at the end of a century or more of unenthusiasm, Measure for Measure came into its own. A largely moral or metaphysical explanation of its quality helped it to enjoy, like the uncles in Larkin’s wedding-poem, ‘success so huge and wholly farcical’. That critical moment has passed, like the Modernism which contributed to it. Measure for Measure isn’t invariably now thought to be a great play. Perhaps our own more political and literalistic culture has made it harder to sustain that kind of response to the arts, and has brought with it a certain withdrawal of intensity of attention. The play is most often found interesting but deeply flawed, sometimes described as profound but more or less always called ‘broken-backed’. It isn’t with much conviction experienced as a comedy (Dantesque or not). Above all, in the loss of a critical agreement, of a sense of what it is that is ‘flawed’, the work seems to strike readers and audiences as strange, even bewildering.

This sense of strangeness is a right reaction to a comedy that finally advertises (however ironically) its own strangeness:

That Angelo’s forsworne, is it not strange?
That Angelo’s a murtherer, is’t not strange?
That Angelo is an adulterous thiefe,
An hypocrite, a virgin violator,
Is it not strange? and strange?

Isabella is here (in the Fifth Act) acting, and she doesn’t know the whole of it yet. But the play does have an extraordinary quality for which I have chosen the word ‘peculiar’ rather than her ‘strange’: ‘peculiar’, like many cant terms, has its useful ambiguity. Measure for Measure startles us, it is outré, it goes far too far – but it also has a marvellousness wholly its own, original.

How peculiar it is becomes clear immediately it is compared to comic predecessors. The fullness of the Shakespearean output around the turn of the century (histories, romantic comedies, a Roman history-tragedy, tragedies, problem comedies) makes it hard to argue sequence or precedence, particularly since there is interbreeding. It is possible, though, to make a case that Measure for Measure must precede All’s Well that Ends Well (and is the more original thereby) – and this based on their use of that peculiar factor, the bed trick. In All’s Well the bed trick is merely part of the source story. But in Measure for Measure it is the means by which the dramatist solves the ‘monstrous ransom’ in the source, where a wife must choose whether to save her husband’s life by sacrificing her fidelity to him in sleeping with the unjust judge who has imposed the penalty. Isabella must choose whether to save her brother, Claudio, by sleeping with Angelo, the Duke’s unjust Deputy. The situation is resolved by the substitution of Mariana, who loves Angelo, for Isabella; it is not acceptably resolved in any other version. In fact, it looks as if this centuries-old and widely disseminated story might derive ultimately from the problems of classical philosophy, such as the problem of the Cretan Liar, constructed to prove that not all questions can be answered: we must be careful to construct answerable questions.

With poetic if not philosophical brilliance, Shakespeare sees that the choice is impossible, and breaks its back. He produces a broken or two-part play. The wife’s crisis is resolved into the resolution of two women, and it turns on the bed trick; the husband’s crisis is dissolved into the intelligence of the Duke and the head of a dead pirate: the first uses the second to save the life of the husband/brother. This is as far as possible from a mere shift: the entire play, as it grows up around these substitutions, makes sense of them and is co-substantial with them in a new, strange, impure intellectual art. On this basis, it seems clear that Measure for Measure came first, and that the dramatist turned later to the discouragingly undramatic narrative of All’s Well (Measure for Measure’s story is fiercely dramatic) because he had found out what the bed trick could do for him.

Let us suppose that As You Like It and Twelfth Night are the comedies that precede Measure for Measure. These earlier plays have courtly and pastoral or rustic settings, each given a strong coloration of fantasy; their romanticism speaks through the exquisite musicality of both, a cantabile that says that love is harmony. When Mariana’s Boy initiates the second movement of Measure for Measure by singing of love betrayed to an abandoned Mariana, we have a startled sense of lost worlds. Shakespeare locates his comedy in the great urban capital of Vienna, and gives it three centres of action, one hearsay (the brothel) and two actual (the convent, the prison) – the first two, the convent and the brothel, always modulating into the third, the prison. The novice Isabella demands ‘a more strict restraint’; her brother, the condemned lover Claudio, finds that his ‘Scope’ has turned, implacably, to ‘restraint’:

Our Natures do pursue
Like Rats that ravyn down their proper Bane,
A thirsty evill, and when we drinke, we die.

Anne Barton has remarked, slightly bitterly, that ‘much of the action takes place in a prison’: and certainly the shadow of bars is all a workable set really requires. The prison is a real place, city-like, full of all the ‘great doers of our trade’ in Pompey Bum’s words, taking on an almost Dickensian vitality of horrible life. The first full sentence of the comedy begins ‘Of Government’, and the play’s laws are political as well as ethical. The best production I have seen (and I have seen a good many) was by Declan Donellan, who set the action in a modern town hall. Claudio’s lines, spoken on his way to prison under the newly stringent sentence of death for fornication, are from a speech oddly and notoriously difficult – oddly, because Claudio is a simple man. He is obscure here because his fate forces him, perhaps for the first time, to think aloud in the street, or to struggle to do so. The whole comedy is characterised by a special density of broken wit: atmospherically Shakespeare’s most magnificent comedy before The Tempest, Measure for Measure’s cloudy and knotted luminousness has nothing in common with the verse of previous comedies. Claudio’s disturbed and peculiar wit is the voice of an inward mind. Measure for Measure takes a great leap into the centre of disharmony; and its chief discordance or broken music is that of inner against outer, Mind against Body.

In one of the only three Platonic Dialogues known to the Middle Ages, the Phaedo, Socrates taught (while himself in prison awaiting execution) that the soul or spirit or mind is itself only imprisoned by the body and its lusts. His words were given other translations and interpretations, but this is the one that seems to re-echo most in Shakespeare’s culture. This wisdom, Christianised, passed through innumerable Renaissance forms and versions, such as Marvell’s ‘Dialogue between the Soul and Body’:

O who shall, from this Dungeon, raise
A Soul inslav’d so many wayes?
With bolts of Bones, that fetter’d stands
In Feet; and manacled in Hands.

If Measure for Measure is compared with its principal sources (Cinthio, George Whetstone), or with the beautifully unified comedies that precede it, the unavoidable difference is a deliberate, skilled and sustained art of bifurcation in the dark comedy. Stories of the unjust judge in the sources here take on a resonance of inward trouble and suggest the rich topos of the love-hatred of Mind and Body, classical rather than Christian in its origins, and associated with debate and dialogue. Measure for Measure is in its first superlative half made up of debate and dialogue; the play is not merely dark, but abstract, intellectual, argumentative – and the arguments all turn on bodies.

Late in the play, Angelo, aghast with guilt, puts into words the fact that he has – as he thinks – first robbed a novice of her virginity in return for the life of her brother, and then cheated her by going on to take that life. His language has the tense uncertainty this comedy invents everywhere: ‘A deflowred maid,/And by an eminent body, that enforc’d/The Law against it’. The phrases articulate, from an appalled, withdrawn mind, all the brutalities of the plot as Angelo planned it, turned into a self-betrayal that he has instead experienced. This is the ‘eminent body’ thinking. In All’s Well, Diana refers to the bed trick supposedly involving herself and Bertram as the act of being ‘embodied yours’. On this occasion the metaphor is presumably a military one. In Measure for Measure ‘embodiment’ in some larger sense illuminates the substance of the whole comedy. We might call the play a ‘tragicomedy of embodiment’.

It is of course the pregnant condition of Claudio’s faithful Julietta that, by making their love public or visible, has initiated the action of the main plot. Interestingly, the two bed-trick comedies each feature one of the dramatist’s only three visibly pregnant women, Julietta and Helena (the third is Hermione in The Winter’s Tale). Even the unseen Mistress Elbow, in the hysterically funny non-account of events in the Bunch of Grapes, is said by Pompey Bum to be ‘with childe, and . . . great bellied, and longing (as I said) for prewyns’. Pregnancy has an obvious place in a play that deals with the private act of love and the public role of childbearing. But there may be a further dimension of meaning. Paulina in The Winter’s Tale struggles to get the imprisoned Queen’s newborn infant out past the jailer:

This Childe was prisoner to the wombe, and is
By Law and processe of great Nature, thence
Free’d and enfranchis’d.

In very late Shakespeare, both birth and death, perhaps, teach minds and souls how to free themselves of the body. But in Measure for Measure what is sought is merely reconciliation, some end of the war between Body and Mind.

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This essay was delivered, in a slightly different version, as a lecture at the 30th International Shakespeare Conference at Stratford in August 2002. She would like to thank Peter Holland and the Advisory Committee for the invitation.