Vol. 25 No. 1 · 2 January 2003

A Dreame of Passion

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

6846 words

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.

Shakespeare’s major alteration of his sources, the invention of the Duke, comes in the first scene. He interprets the main action of the play, as if it were taking place in his head, whether he is the observer as agent (the powerful Duke) or the observer as patient or sufferer (the contemplative Friar). It is because he thinks his way through the action, decently and learningly if clumsily, that the play is a comedy, even a peculiar comedy. Known in the text only by his public roles, he is named in the Folio cast list as ‘Vincentio’, which means ‘conqueror’. When he becomes a substitute friar, he wears the name ‘Lodowick’, which Shakespeare may have thought of as ‘Ludovico’, meaning a game played out by shifts and changes. The first word spoken in Measure for Measure is the name of the Duke’s ancient right-hand man, Escalus. Our modern verb ‘escalate’ was then, and for a long time to come, unknown, but had a predecessor in a noun now rare, ‘escalade’; both words are derived from the Latin word for a ladder, scala. An escalade is an assault in which soldiers climb over a defensive wall with ladders. The process of escalade is possibly referred to in Psalm 18, which rejoices in God’s saving strength even from ‘the snares of death’ in a manner rather appropriate to tragicomedy: ‘For thou wilt save the afflicted people; but wilt bring down high looks./For thou wilt light my candle: the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness./For by thee I have run through a troop; and by God have I leaped over a wall.’

Escalus’s name reverberates at several warning points of the drama. It is the Duke/ Friar’s task to learn to leap over the wall – to acquire routes of virtue not necessarily the same as those which conventional human beings think of as the Strait Gate. Though an odd romance, Measure for Measure is one, and romance takes us the long way round, the surprising way through. The business of ‘government’ shifts into the imprecise mere living of those involved (we never, for instance, find out what was going on in the Bunch of Grapes). The public generalities of the mind, involving ‘The nature of our People,/Our Cities Institutions’, are dropped as early as possible, on the grounds that Escalus is ‘pregnant in’ them anyway; all mutates into the amateur Friar’s hand to mouth, perfectly existential trafficking with each impropriety as it comes, in the hope that things may improve. At one of the most genuinely funny moments of this savagely serious comedy, the Duke hopes to save Claudio by substituting for his head that of the prisoner Barnardine, but is foiled by the criminal’s obstinate insistence that he needs his head; the Duke is saved by a kindly Provost’s suggestion that he should miss out the justice and just supply the head, since he (the Provost) just happens to have one, formerly belonging to a sick pirate, now ideally to hand: ‘Heere is the head, Ile carrie it my selfe.’

‘Ile carrie it my selfe’ might well do as a subtitle for the Duke’s play. More and more a butt of events, his motives hidden because he perhaps has none, the Duke/Friar acts with the abruptness and inexplicable decisiveness with which we live within ourselves. He stumbles forward in the direction of the happy ending, ‘carrying it myself’: living, not governing. But, if he makes mistakes and has troubles, it is precisely these mistakes and troubles that prove him a true governor, for the point of the play at which he steps forward masterfully, led now by his self-evident goodwill, is that at which catastrophe impends. Authority and goodness are essentially amateur, hypothetical, circumstantial: they are that which does not despise, at need, squalid shifts like bed tricks, or humping about the head of a dead pirate. They are also, since the Duke corrects only that action which he himself initiated, something like an inward process of responsible self-knowledge, self-discovery.

The pirate’s head is both the low point of the drama, the moment of maximal humiliation to the Duke and to Claudio, as the bed trick is to Mariana and Isabella, and as both are to Angelo; and also the point of turn, at which ‘tragi-’>’ becomes ‘comedy’. Fortuitous as it is, the head is not precisely random: the pirate has already appeared in the play. In the second scene, Lucio makes the point to a pair of Gentlemen that life and morality force self-deception onto the helpless human being:

– Thou conclud’st like the Sanctimonius Pirat, that went to sea with the ten Commandements, but scrap’d one out of the Table.
– Thou shalt not Steale?
– I, that he raz’d.

‘Steale’, then pronounced ‘stale’, which meant ‘to pass water’, carries with it – here and throughout the play – some hint of further wordplay, involving sexual function. The ‘Sanctimonius Pirat’ is the Pauline Body that would be good and is not. The backchat of Lucio and the Gentlemen generates what is probably the most extensive case in Shakespeare of the VD joke: ‘sorry fooling’ indeed, as Dover Wilson remarked. Certainly there is relevance to the play’s brothels. But it might be possible to go further, and believe that this passage of reference to sexual disease introduces early into Measure for Measure what might be called the Body’s nightmares, the natural ‘dolour’ of sexuality extending far beyond the play’s licentious underworld, and asking questions as deep, disturbing and divisive as Angelo’s startling word-games at a point when Isabella’s purity has excited his lust: ‘Shee speakes, and ‘tis such sence/That my Sence breeds with it.’

Venereal disease, in the 16th century beginning its steady spread across Europe, must have seemed unanswerable evidence that the wages of sin is death. But, as with plague and other infections transmitted beyond contemporary medical knowledge of cure, it may have seemed to logical minds equally unanswerable evidence that the wages of virtue is death. The pragmatic Christianity of the time, as indeed of any time, could make Jobs of serious men and women. Shakespeare has rendered his story churchy, in a further piece of cool invention, with the wife/sister a novice nun and the Deputy a sort of Puritan monk. The diversification of Church politics here brings with it a safe non-political vagueness. But however romanticised, the play’s religion is nothing but Christian. Its God is therefore a God of Love Incarnate, Love Embodied. But, as the brothel balances the convent in a sort of dramaturgical logic, so does its God of Love ‘speake feelingly’ (the First Gentleman’s bitter quibble) in a world of rotting bodies. It may be worth pointing out that Wagner’s very early opera Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’) was based on Measure for Measure, but in a Romantic and Italianate style, and located in Sicily, and it was then and has been ever since a complete failure, perhaps because Wagner ignored Shakespeare’s ‘sorry fooling’, and all the moral depth and darkness he found in it.

The disease jokes socialise the disease, so that it becomes a phenomenon of a sick society, almost a fashion. But they do the opposite, too: they trace the sickness below the social so as horrifically to naturalise it, to make it seem an inevitable inheritance of the body, a rooted possession. The mind can be cleaned only by an acknowledgment of the filth of the body. Trying to communicate her new knowledge of Angelo to Claudio, Isabella says: ‘His filth within being cast, he would appear/A pond, as deepe as hell.’ ‘Casting’ means, in the English of the time, both ‘vomiting, throwing up’, and ‘diagnosis, medical or scientific analysis’: it tends towards Nietzsche’s ‘The doctors and the nurses must themselves be sick.’ It is a marvellous peculiarity of the action that, in a sense, there is no action, beyond learning: Angelo, the unjust judge, has in the end done nothing except to experience ordinary human desire, which frightens and horrifies him so much that he raises on it terrible fantasies of dying and killing. It is a part of the play’s irony that when the Duke countenances with grave philosophical calm the ‘going-forth’ of Nature’s virtues, he makes himself responsible, in the great casting of the play, for goings-forth from Angelo, Claudio and even Isabella and Mariana; these can be called virtue only by strenuous efforts of adjustment. And there lies at the bottom of his beautiful concept of justice a pirate’s hacked-off head.

Shakespeare is often described as having humanised the harsh legend he found in his sources. The response to this can only be: yes and no. What he has not done is to attempt to soften the monstrous ransom into comedy by wedging sentimentalities onto a barbaric beginning. What he does is first to clarify his story’s original or essential ferocity, its impossibility, through the ruthless encounters of the play’s first movement. Then, in its second movement, he uses the deaths of pride and self-respect to generate the painful new life there defined. This double narrative and double purpose is effected by a doubleness brought about in the audience: we are at once intensely interested and detached, like the Mind itself in the Body. We are held, moved and amazed, and yet simultaneously know that this is only a story, because the Duke/ Friar is always around, always watching, always acquiring the knowledge to do what he finally does in becoming the true Judge, in calling up unseen extras (‘Flavius . . . Valentinus, Rowland . . . Crassus . . . bid them bring the trumpets to the gate . . . Varrius!’) who are half angels of judgment, half the detritus of a lost ludicrous world of romance.

At the technical level, it may be remarked that there are in Measure for Measure certain reminiscences of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, of which the most significant is Barabas’ warning to the even more Machiavellian Catholic Governor: ‘Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong.’ It is this art of extremity that moves from Marlowe down to Jonson. The finest of Shakespeare’s earlier comic characters – Bottom, Shylock, Falstaff, perhaps Beatrice – are full of surprises, secrets, silences: they are temperately human and always developing in the mind. By contrast, Angelo, Isabella and Claudio are a superb trio who seem, like the rest of the play’s characters, relatively Marlovian or Jonsonian. They exist in terms of a few intense, even sensational scenes; they are made to be revealed briefly and climactically. There are moments indeed when the radically inventive sequence of scenes makes the three characters appear like persons in a neoclassical drama, governed by unities, almost as if Shakespeare had in a moment of exploration invented Racine. ‘My words expresse my purpose,’ Angelo tells Isabella, and ‘Looke what I will not that I cannot doe,’ but all three are to some extent creatures who define themselves by will; they are public people, powerful rhetoricians (in II.ii Angelo tells the Provost to stay and listen, either as chaperone or as audience; II.iv, when Angelo and Isabella are finally alone, produces an awe-inspiring if slightly factitious eroticism, as if Shakespeare had now anticipated Clarissa). Choosing to be, and sustaining that choice by power of will, the three characters are nonetheless balanced on a moment, wire-drawn to the point of snapping. They are caught in something that is not action so much as a sequence of confrontations, in which their power effects nothing but to grind each other down, in a pure conflict of egos, diamond-cut-diamond.

This first part of the comedy is so originally imagined and crafted as surely to have served as a paradigm for Jacobean tragedy: Webster, with his confused, disturbing insight that ‘by blood or lust/Like diamonds we are cut by our own dust’, may have taken the triangle of his Duchess and her two brothers from Shakespeare’s trio, and the grave erotic tragedy of Middleton’s Beatrice and de Flores may be similarly indebted to Isabella and Angelo. And certainly the ruthless reductiveness of Measure for Measure’s opening action has suggested the tragic to many audiences, as has the erotic and deathly element in the atmosphere, always urging forward to some fatal crisis. For this quasi-tragic invention we can perhaps find a source in Shakespeare himself. The title phrase, Measure for Measure, is most often glossed as scriptural. But its other and earlier occurrence in the playwright is in III Henry VI. Warwick ‘the kingmaker’ proposes to replace the head of York, savagely set on the gates of the city by Margaret, with that of Clifford:

From off the gates of Yorke fetch down the head,
Your Father’s head, which Clifford placed there:
In stead whereof, let this supply the roome,
Measure for measure must be answered.

Warwick’s proverb displays something undoubtedly Tudor, in that a text from the parables – ‘With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you’ (Mark 4.24) – adjusts itself to the pragmatic ethic of revenge, at its most ferocious in III Henry VI. Angelo and Isabella, Isabella and Claudio are locked in relationships as logical and frightful as those of historical revenge-tragedy; yet what Angelo says is merely, ‘Plainly conceive I love you.’ In a manner not much like Marlowe or Jonson, Shakespeare has associated his characters’ desperate need to survive with real issues of human love. He has also set these authoritarians in a context of alternatives hardly preferable, the brothel and the Bunch of Grapes: a world embodied in Lucio as mind-destroyingly amorphous and in Pompey Bum as body-shamingly gross (‘I am a poore fellow that would live’). When Warwick speaks, chivalric royalistic power-politics suddenly come into focus as an exchange of heads. The superbly dense texture of Measure for Measure, throughout simultaneously public and private, powered by love and hatred (if there is any difference), comes nose to nose at some central point with the exchange of piratical heads.

The achievement of the scenes between Angelo and Isabella, and then between Isabella and Claudio, lies in the balance between mathematical logic and psychological truth. The sequence is like a chess-game’s closing and mating moves, as ‘extreme right’ does ‘exceeding wrong’, or head falls to head, in a junction of order and disorder made articulate in the play’s here glittering and slippery verbal style. Angelo and Isabella, coming together like two stars in opposition, experience what Marvell was to call ‘the conjunction of the Mind’: but the Minds have Bodies (‘shee speakes, and ‘tis such sence/ That my Sence breeds with it’). Angelo’s love is, at it were, against his will, though compounded of will, and the division is death to him: his later wish to die is less repentance than a built-in and logical condition of his love. Some of the comedy’s darkest, most peculiar moments of humour come as we recognise how prompt Angelo and Isabella and even the Duke/Friar are to proffer death for other people as frankly the best solution for most of life’s problems. Angelo, in particular, needs absolute zero, the point of cold at which energies cease and perfect order begins. This vision of defeat and self-destruction in love is Shakespeare’s conversion into human truth of the merely notional villainy of the original bad judge. The heads are the poet’s impassive perception that we cannot excise from the argument the human body, even in the name of justice.

Critics still occasionally discuss Measure for Measure at the level of debate, as if it were meaningful to ask if Isabella should or should not have slept with Angelo. But these profound and extraordinary scenes – which we can call comic because the Duke is always there – deal with psychological verities that undermine such issues. Isabella does (in the person of Mariana) sleep with Angelo, and he still betrays her. A man who could impose these conditions on a woman could not be trusted and therefore should not be listened to, should not be ‘loved’ – because the self in him that makes the demands is the point in the human at which the sexual becomes deathly, and eros moves to thanatos. The play, specifically social and political, is peculiarly lacking in the love – romantic and affectionate – that ‘harmonises’ and makes musical many of the earlier comedies: here, the egos are solitary; there is nothing for them to do but discover themselves. Even Isabella, at the end of her two grisly encounters with life and love, is visibly stiffening into resistance. The lines she speaks before visiting Claudio to prepare him for death, ‘had he twenty heads to tender downe/ On twenty bloodie blockes, hee’ld yeeld them up,’ are at once obscurely funny, pathetic and menacing – a reversion into some lethal sibling battle in some well-bred Tudor schoolroom. Isabella feels herself upstaged not only by the unknown Deputy but by her own brother; a young woman who had planned to save the world finds that she is going to have difficulty saving her own face. Always far more touchingly and genially presented than Angelo, Isabella begins to reveal a full human tone. Astonished, outraged and distinctly hard done by, she has lost her first battle, the stand against Angelo’s hard masculine will, and she profoundly minds the fact. Someone must pay. Claudio pays, with his self-humiliating ‘Sweet Sister, let me live’: a brother’s command or appeal as imprisoning and disillusioning to her as Angelo’s demands, equally the utterance of need. Hence the hysteria of fear and rage into which she disintegrates, a thing it would be painful to watch were it not for the persistent dry coolness of the play as it observes these important public people, these distinguished incompetent rhetoricians: a sceptical reserve embodied in the Friar’s eye that glints behind the curtain.

In the first half of Measure for Measure, three more or less virtuous people, who in very different ways distinguish themselves by their need to be good, or to be seen to be good, watch their secret natures rise to the surface, and assume the forms of lust, rage and fear. These are (we see and know) qualities so commonplace as to make Angelo, Isabella and Claudio no more than ‘poor fellows that would live’; but the living entails survival at others’ expense. Given the sainted abnegations of two of the main characters, and the sturdy virility of the third, to find out this fact about the self is a humiliation so intense that one might call it a death. And the three do in some sense die. In the theatre, they are sorely missed in the second part of the play by less open-minded understanders. When they reappear, they are silent, or subordinate, or ‘muffeld’, not themselves. As a comedy, the play may be the most peculiar in the canon, in that it starts with one set of characters, and finishes with another; and there is nothing whatever accidental about this.

At one point the Provost says of Claudio: ‘Alas,/He hath but as offended in a dreame . . ./and he/To die for’t?’ The sanity of the Provost is a touchstone. Both he and we know that Claudio cannot be allowed to die for so little. And Shakespeare has so presented both Angelo and Isabella (whose nervous violence in any case hardly approaches the criminality of the Deputy) as to permit the same tolerance for both. We can say of the play that not only Angelo, but all its intellectual and principled characters are to some degree locked in what Hamlet, speaking of the Player, calls ‘a dreame of passion’. Or, borrowing a superlative phrase from a later poet, George Herbert, we might say that we observe all three idealists suffering from ‘a noise of passions ringing me for dead/Unto a place where is no rest.’

Measure for Measure is a violent and sophisticated play in which almost nothing happens. As such, it is a perfect – and perfectly ironical – reversal of the source situation, which is a complex of terrible but mere happenings. The only thing in the play that could be described as a terrible but mere happening is the pirate’s head, the single mocking detritus of the sources. Of all the rest we must say that, where human beings in society are concerned, ‘Thoughts are no subjects,/Intents but meerely thoughts.’ The second part, and particularly the bridge passage following Isabella’s interview with Claudio, when the Duke begins to intervene, challenges the ‘thoughts’ of readers and audiences. There are marvellous things here, and almost always a sense of strain as the dramatist works for something highly original, a tragicomic form that breaks and remakes itself, breaks and remakes characters’ lives, believably.

The Duke steps forward, at what feels like the exact halfway point (the end of Act Three) to speak directly and Chorus-like of the responsibility of rule: at this moment, undoubtedly a surrogate for – if not the dramatist himself – then our own critical objectivities, our dawning consciousness. It is his task to take over the apparently irremediable action, by arranging the bed trick; as he does so, ‘character’ (in the moral as well as the theatrical sense) starts to change its nature. The stars of the previous action are fading in the late-night sky. Something is over; something has worked itself out and come to an end – the ‘dreame of passion’, the wish to be good, the ego’s hunger to be honoured, the ‘stealth’ of love lacking ‘the denunciation’ of ‘outward order’. To mark that ending and to indicate a beginning, the Duke has begun to speak in a style quite new in the play, a completely social prose disturbing in a general medium of inward poetry, its specious calming grace as unspiritual as its facts are mainly untrue: the voice, in short, of a human being who deals politely, cautiously, expeditiously and above all successfully with some all but irretrievable social catastrophe – the unforgivable insult at the dinner table, horror and hatred within view of a child, a death at a wedding. What the Duke’s peculiar romance-language does (it will recur often in the late romances) is to point to those areas in the plot that can be outlived, even if there are others that cannot be mended and must be forgotten.

Isabella, the confidently bossy and (surely) well-born schoolgirl, is going to have to draw a pall of rigid manner and manners over her head like a mourning veil, and agree to accept the grubby intrigue of the bed trick. She is not let into the secret of her brother’s survival: him, too, she must mourn. Angelo all but disappears from the action until he returns at the end to a marriage with Mariana, to which he would prefer death. Claudio plays no part until he comes back ‘muffeld’, not quite the same man. All these underminings only pave the way for a greater: the drama is about to change its cast list. We begin again with two wholly new characters, Mariana and Barnardine, who lack any grain of the glamour of the previous three. Indeed, they are so signally without glamour as perhaps to say something about glamour. But the natural current of the play is a ‘going forth’, an ‘unfolding’ towards what is new in the self and strange in the social – the play begins, after all, with a pregnant woman. There are people in our world (the comedy seems to say) so despised, so marginal, that we have never even heard of them, or have rejected and forgotten them; but these insignificants have it in them to solve all problems. The forlorn Mariana has to have her song sung for her by her Boy; the unalterably recalcitrant Barnardine serves as a verbal medium for the pirate’s head, who is his token, his boss. These are what Measure for Measure offers as the tragicomic solvers, what Cymbeline will call ‘the life o’ the need’.

At the end of Act Three we have left Angelo guilty, in theory at least, of blackmailing rape and of treacherous judicial murder, and with his career in ruins about him. The Duke, out of pure gentlemanly politeness, backtracks and takes up the story – or takes up a similar and possible story – at an earlier stage, from which Angelo could go on. There is an astonishment about the discovery of a markedly romantic background for Angelo to inhabit, as if we had suddenly skidded backwards into Twelfth Night. But the new terms of Measure for Measure include extremities like astonishment; its darkness has room for open secrets. Therefore Shakespeare invents Mariana, who is as extreme as her lover, but helpless, passive, and even abject: so crushed that she should plainly be acted in the theatre as disadvantaged in some social or personal respect.

The bed trick is a right solution for the Duke to find for one of Angelo’s two demands, that of Isabella’s virginity, because it is the sexual act in the dark: deprived, that is, of all that is deeper. Mariana provides a Body to help the ‘thoughts’ of the Mind; in a comedy in which one person’s meeting with another is a ‘measure for measure’, she is almost a revenge. The play is at moments a fantasy in which a dream of sexuality and a dream of justice become one and the same, a bed trick in which Angelo is fairly copped. He has hoped that his need for a body will buy Isabella’s need for self-respect: this is desire in abjection, a dishonour made only more extreme once his contract is broken.

Once Mariana is there, it becomes possible to believe that Angelo is guilty of nothing but mere desire – that this hideously chaste man has committed the crime of being ‘an eminent body’. Such failure may be to Angelo unsurvivable. But Mariana comes unwanted out of the past to prove that Angelo is real beyond his own willed concepts. She is his embodiment, his randomness, his real existence. And she craves ‘no other, nor no better man’ – a taking of the Deputy’s measure perhaps worse for him than judicial punishment would have been. But he is not invited to choose. For Shakespeare has translated his source story of choice into its opposite. By embodying the answer ‘no’ in Isabella and the answer ‘yes’ in Mariana, he underwrites the original’s real choicelessness. There are only two conditions, each of which must be lived.

The same black joke about choicelessness that turned on Isabella/Mariana turns on Claudio too. We may choose between the hysterical disintegration of the living Claudio and the quiet dignity of the pirate’s head. In the event, we get both. That lawless, indeed criminal pair, Barnardine and the pirate, are a joke about Angelo’s second passion, the need for a justice so extreme as to make sense of things. Angelo’s intellectual appetite for the order of the past, which is the clarity of death, can’t be met by Claudio, who lives in the future (he is about to become a father); it won’t be met by Barnardine, who lives in the present and has a will at least as strong as Angelo’s, probably stronger (because not socialised, not politically adjusted). What is really needed is a head already dead, and justly dead (the man was a pirate, though he died, as we say, ‘naturally’). Angelo is sent a body belonging to anybody (a girl in the dark, who ‘may be a Puncke’) and a head belonging to nobody. For these are his needs, grimly understood.

But Angelo’s needs don’t altogether explain the extraordinary power of both these new characters: Mariana, who generated two poems by Tennyson, and Barnardine, who prompted the 19th-century notion that Shakespeare left the character alive because he liked him too much to kill him. What is remarkable is the ‘lingering’ quality of both. Mariana and Barnardine are endowed with a secret endurance in time. Shakespeare has made them both survivors, the character tragicomedy most needs and must discover. In defining them, the poet touched a level of the primitive, even of the symbolic, which brought new life into his comedy. The moment at which the inarticulate, helplessly loving Mariana kneels with the once formidable Isabella, lifts up her hands and echoes a single word, ‘Meerely my Lord’; or the moment at which Barnardine begins to come on stage, fusing Kafka with Beckett but Shakespearean in humour, ‘He is comming Sir, he is comming: I heare his Straw russle’: these are inventions peculiar in themselves, but demanding for Shakespeare that unsatisfactory word genius.

Measure for Measure begins with the ugly public exposure of a Claudio likely to lose his head and ends with the showing of another Claudio’s unlost head; beginning and end are joined by the head of a dead pirate – ‘Heere is the head, Ile carrie it my selfe.’ The extreme abstraction that roots the play in that most moving of Biblical texts, the reconciliation of justice and mercy, is only one aspect of a work both paradoxical and sensational. There is an obstinate concretion in the way that it not only thinks with, but plays with heads – men’s heads, maidenheads, heads of state, heads of argument. In the dark at the centre of the drama, Angelo loses his head, Mariana loses her head, the pirate loses his head. At the end of the play, the Duke keeps his, and spends the last few hundred lines dealing out justice like a man with a pack of cards: marriage for Angelo, marriage for Lucio, marriage for Claudio, marriage for Vincentio, and every husband the head of his wife. (It has to be admitted, to the pleasure of feminists, that Isabella is never actually observed to agree to this arrangement; and she has her match in the play’s Mistress Overdone, who has survived and possibly disposed of nine husbands.)

The Duke’s is a fantastically orderly ending for a fantastically disorderly play, one concerned not (as we might expect) with authority but with humility, not (as we might expect) with sex but with sympathy: the imagination that always ‘leaps over a wall’. How seriously we take its finale depends on how we define seriousness in a work whose originality lies in confusing human notions of what is grave and what is funny: for its substance and subject-matter are to some degree unnatural from the start, as Hazlitt implied by objecting that there was ‘an original sin in the story’. These are only the rich contradictions we should expect from Shakespeare’s first true tragicomedy.

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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences