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Introduction to Measure for Measure
Daniel Colvin

Measure for Measure takes it title from the Gospel according to Matthew: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:2), a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, one of Christs most famous sermons. Among other things, this sermon emphasizes the difference between outer sanctity and inner corruption, between seeming and being. Like the play, the Sermon on the Mount stresses the world of the soul, the intentions, the mind: emphasizing not only on what a person does but also what he thinks, Jesus finds that the inner life is even more significant than the outer life. He takes the Ten Commandments and extrapolates their statements to include intentionality the Commandment says we are not to kill, but he says that anger is just as bad. More to the point, he speaks about the world of sexual activities: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:27-29). The law as figured in the Ten Commandments can speak to behavior, distinguishing between what is good and what is bad; but it cannot speak to attitude and intention. Moreover, in its specificity, the law is prone to become concrete legalism, a pharisaical focus on the letter of the commandment, a process that allows individuals to focus on the details of the law rather than the intention of the law to create holy people. That is why Lucio talks about the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scrapd one out of the table. 

Measure for Measure concerns itself with human behavior, to be sure. It considers the need for statutes, laws to govern human appetites and ensure domestic tranquility. But it also focuses our attention on the inner world, that aspect of the individual which functions according to values and which may be called the moral center of the person. The congruence between outer actions and inner values is one of the overriding themes of the play, especially as it is manifest in the issue of seeming and being. The Duke himself notes the difference between appearance and reality as he speaks about his deputy Angelo, who appears to be the perfect deputy and the disciplined (even puritanical) character. Noting Angelos character, the Duke also questions the integrity of his inner and outer worlds: 

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. 
Angelo ultimately proves to be a seemer, one whose statements of virtue and self-control do not match his behavior. But to call him a hypocrite misses the mark: he is as surprised at his lust as anyone else, at least at its onset, and he questions his moral status at first. His virtue had always been quite real for him, and his slide into sin catches him off guard. When he finds himself lusting after Isabella, he exclaims with surprise, 

What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most? Ha! Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I That, lying by the violet in the sun, Do as the carrion does, not as the flower, Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be That modesty may more betray our sense Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough, Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie! What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? Dost thou desire her foully for those things That make her good? O, let her brother live! Thieves for their robbery have authority When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her, That I desire to hear her speak again, And feast upon her eyes? What is't I dream on? O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous Is that temptation that doth goad us on To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet, With all her double vigour, art and nature, Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid Subdues me quite. Even till now, When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how. 

Angelo finds in himself, then, a double nature: the first is the virtuous individual that would have carried on with propriety; the second, a carnal, lustful, power-hungry character who, though surprising to him, is nonetheless part of who he is. His awareness of this duality within is echoed in the change in his speech. Until the point at which he attempts to seduce Isabella, his language had been straightforward, carrying single meanings. But when he begins to pursue his appetites with Isabella, asides characterize his speech and double entendres enter his rhetoric: 

In an aside Angelo plays on the double meaning of pleasure
ISABELLA I am come to know your pleasure.
ANGELO That you might know it, would much better please me Than to demand what 'tis 

And he speaks obliquely in seducing Isabella as he argues:

ANGELO Nay, I'll not warrant that; for I can speak Against the thing I say. Answer to this: I, now the voice of the recorded law, Pronounce a sentence on your brother's life: Might there not be a charity in sin To save this brother's life?
ISABELLA Please you to do't, I'll take it as a peril to my soul, It is no sin at all, but charity.
ANGELO Pleased you to do't at peril of your soul, Were equal poise of sin and charity.

He also uses a sexual meaning with his metaphors:

ANGELO Ha! fie, these filthy vices! It were as good To pardon him that hath from nature stolen A man already made, as to remit Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image In stamps that are forbid: 'tis all as easy Falsely to take away a life true made As to put metal in restrained means To make a false one. 

His change in character is mirrored in the new doubleness of speech, and the double entendre reveals, at least to the audience if not to Isabella, Angelos inner corruption as it is figured in his lack of integrity, in the disparity between outer seeming and inner being. 

While the inner corruption he discovers in himself might surprise Angelo, it would have been no surprise to the audience. Reformation theology which was influential at the time of Shakespeare reminded people that each person was tainted with evil; such was the doctrine of total depravity, the sense that every aspect of existence was affected by the effects of Adams first sin (original sin was the concept): not that everyone was as evil as possible, but rather that no one could claim to be totally virtuous. The doubleness of language that Angelo began to demonstrate, the moral struggle that he faced, was part of the very fabric of human nature, as St. Paul had written in Romans:
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Romans 7:14-24) 

That Angelo was liable to temptation and sin was not surprising, nor was the experience of his falling unusual (though by no means excusable). His pride, however, was quite unwarranted, and it was itself a major sin. Moreover, it made his especially vulnerable to temptation and sin. 

Isabella, too, is not without her complexities and her problems. At the beginning of the play we find her desiring to enter a nunnery. The choice of a religious vocation seems to set her apart as another of the virtuous characters. Lucio, himself one of the more cynical characters in the play, is even taken with her purity: Having come to tell Isabella that her brother has been arrested for impregnating his lover Julietta, Lucio defends himself against Isabellas charge that he is mocking her: 
I would not--though 'tis my familiar sin With maids to seem the lapwing and to jest, Tongue far from heart--play with all virgins so: I hold you as a thing ensky'd and sainted. By your renouncement an immortal spirit, And to be talk'd with in sincerity, As with a saint. 
Even Lucio is taken with her seeming sincerity. But the audience has heard another aspect of her character that Lucio hasnt. Speaking to one of the superiors at the nunnery, Isabella reveals a more suspect aspect of herself: 

ISABELLA And have you nuns no farther privileges?
FRANCISCA Are not these large enough?
ISABELLA Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more; But rather wishing a more strict restraint Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.

Isabella, consciously or unconsciously, presents herself as one whose inner life demands curbs and restraints. Whether she is conscious of this problem and she seems loath to admit it Isabella is expressing the need for some kind of restraint because her nature itself is liable to err. Her virtue, then, is lacking in some essential aspects. At best it is passive and defensive rather than active and aggressive. It is not enough to flee evil, that is (as one does, for example, by entering a convent); a good person must also promote the good. 

How to deal with this inner corruption this total depravity is one of the major concerns of the Duke as well as the play. The role of the king was to inhibit evil and to promote virtue at least that was the orthodox position (though, to play on Hamlets statement, a position sometimes more honored in the breach than the observance). So it is that the Duke has a problem to solve at the beginning of the play. The Duke had permitted the society to follow its natural course: he had allowed the laws to go unpunished for too long, permitting vice to flourish and good to wither: 
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.

Just as individuals experienced their own total depravity, so too did the body politic. The entire city of Vienna had become corrupted, naturally, because the Duke had failed to execute his office properly. Just as a garden will go to weed if not tended, the social fabric will tend to unravel without care. The Duke was responsible for such tending, but he had been lax, and now the entire city was paying the price. The Dukes solution, however, was just as impracticable as that of either Angelo or Isabella. He assumed that social restraint would be sufficient to remedy the situation, and to that end he established Angelo as his deputy, knowing that Angelo would be a strict enforcer of the laws: 

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.

Yet in his desire to restore decorum, the Duke also acts to avoid personal and political responsibility, just as Angelo would later attempt to deny personal accountability for his own actions. If there is a way to account for the frailty of human nature, legislation does not seem to be a sufficient solution, just as Isabellas defensive flight had been ineffective. 

That there may not be a good solution to the personal and social problems presented in Measure for Measure is what has led many critics to call this a problem play or a dark comedy. The term problem play came about because critics had a difficult time reconciling the dark and cynical tone of some of Shakespeares plays with the general characteristics of comedy. After all, Measure for Measure had been included as a comedy in the First Folio (1623), but in many respects it didnt seem all that comedic. True, couples were reconciled at the end of the play, but such reconciliations came about at a great price (Claudio is almost killed, Isabella is propositioned, and Angelo is forced into marriage). There is forgiveness, but it is strained; there is rectification, but it comes as a result of deceit, trickery, and manipulation. All in all, the play leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. In that respect, Measure for Measure shares much with plays such as Alls Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and (at least for some) Hamlet. These plays, especially the first two, along with Measure for Measure, are hard to fit into neat categories, in part because they bother our sensibilities and resist easy interpretation. Thus the term problem plays. 

The play is problematic or satirical, too, in its view of society and morality. The world of Vienna is a world of corruption. The Pompey subplot emphasizes the rampant sexual corruption in the city and the ramifications of unenforced laws. But it also suggests that human laws and perhaps human morality are quite arbitrary and relative. Here is a world in which good and virtue are defined not by some objective standards but by what the traffic will bear:
POMPEY Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.
ESCALUS How would you live, Pompey? by being a bawd? What do you think of the trade, Pompey? is it a lawful trade?
POMPEY If the law would allow it, sir. 
ESCALUS But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall not be allowed in Vienna. 
POMPEY Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city? 
Whatever the law, according to Pompey, it is an arbitrary imposition that violates human nature. Such social cynicism permeates the entire play. And it isnt a matter of class: Lucio, of the privileged class, shares this same moral relativism. 

Lucio, called a Fantastic, one who is full of imagination, a trait especially dangerous when linked with the meaning of Lucio light, which may refer to both his morals as well as his wit is the opportunistic and morally bankrupt representative of privileged society in Vienna. Again, here is an instance of outer glitter covering inner corruption. Lucio acts as a foil for several of the characters in the play while at the same time functioning as a social barometer for the disease of Vienna. For example, while Claudio has violated the laws of the city and some would say Gods laws and is being punished for it, he nonetheless shows repentance bespeaking an inner moral integrity: 
LUCIO Why, how now, Claudio! whence comes this restraint? 
CLAUDIO From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty: As surfeit is the father of much fast, So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. 
Claudio's perspective on his action affirms a moral order and accepts responsibility for erring. There is, he suggests, a natural order of retributive justice. But not so with Lucio. Speaking of the same situation to Isabella, Lucio avoids the animal imagery used by Claudio. Instead, he employs agricultural imagery, suggesting not a breach of ethics but rather a fulfillment of natural and productive processes: Your brother and his lover have embraced: As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time That from the seedness the bare fallow brings To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry. The question, of course, is whether following nature accepting the authority of natural urges is an acceptable morality, or whether animal instincts need to be sublimated by a higher faculty in humans. At stake, the play suggests, is nothing less than the dignity of human beings and the well-being of the commonwealth. 

Lucio's agricultural imagery and Claudio's animal imagery both exist in the Dukes description of the city: 
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.

Here, however, the view is closer to that of Claudio than to that of Lucio, for the loss of morals the loss of all decorum is signaled by the proliferation of weeds, not the propagation of new grain. The Duke notes the difficulty in legislating morality, and in so doing seems to agree with Claudio: left alone, humans will behave as animals, and all that sets them off (decorum, for one) will be lost. 

The problem with legislating morality, however, is that one is tempted to usurp the place of God, or at least to assume a superiority in deciding what morality to impose and how to do it. Although this problem would have been less troublesome for Renaissance society than for ours today after all, at least most of Shakespeares contemporaries would have given at least lip service to the notion of a functioning Christian moral system it was still a matter of concern. And having experienced the strife of religious conflict in their own time, Shakespeares audience was well aware that in imposing a moral system, the ruling powers were prone to think, and act, as if the end justified the means. Measure for Measure focuses on this problem in the famous bed trick, the substitution of Mariana for Isabella. The ultimate design of the Duke social rectification and the revealing of private vices might be good, but there is real question about the means he uses to achieve those ends (just as there is question about his use of the disguise of a friar, especially when he hears confession) when he sends in Mariana to Angelo. 

While modern audiences may be quite uncomfortable with this machination, it may not have been so for Shakespeares audience. Scholars have noted that at least twenty-one plays from the period used this device, and Shakespeare himself, no doubt aware of the convention from theatre tradition and perhaps from Boccaccio, had used this contrivance already in Alls Well That Ends Well. Moreover, the play seems to make an important distinction between the relationship that existed between Claudio and Julietta and the one between Angelo and Mariana. English common law recognized two forms of engagement or spousals: in sponsalia per verba praesenti, the two individuals declared each other to be a spouse, and this was a legally binding agreement regardless of any future changes or even of consecration by the church in a public marriage ceremony; but in sponsalia per verba de futuro, the two merely swore their intention to marry at some time in the future (much like a modern engagement), and this was not legally binding, for circumstances could change the situation. The difference was minuscule, but significant. Claudio and Julietta seem to be working under the terms of the sponsalia per verba futuro, and as such the lack of a sufficient conclusion to their intentions did indeed leave them open to charges of fornication. But such was not the case with Angelo and Mariana. Although she had lost her dowry, through no fault of her own, she could complete the marriage through having sexual relations with Angelo, relations which were considered both legal and moral. 

This legal precision regarding spousals emphasizes another major theme of the play: the nature and use of the law. That such a small distinction existed in both the culture and the play emphasizes the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law as well as foregrounds the difficulty the law has in dealing with human behavior. If the law is truly to be a means of social rectification if a good government is to help produce good character in its citizens it must find some way to affect both the inner and outer individual. But the play shows that law cannot deal with anything but behavior. Angelo notes this matter when he says to Escalus:
'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall. I not deny, The jury, passing on the prisoner's life, May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two Guiltier than him they try. What's open made to justice, That justice seizes: what know the laws That thieves do pass on thieves? 'Tis very pregnant, The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't Because we see it; but what we do not see We tread upon, and never think of it. 

The problem, to be sure, is that the law can deal with what a person does but not with what a person is. And at the end of the play Isabella reaffirms that position, arguing for forgiveness for Angelo: Most bounteous sir, Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd, As if my brother lived: I partly think A due sincerity govern'd his deeds, Till he did look on me: since it is so, Let him not die. My brother had but justice, In that he did the thing for which he died: For Angelo, His act did not o'ertake his bad intent, And must be buried but as an intent That perish'd by the way: thoughts are no subjects; Intents but merely thoughts. The inability of the law to deal with the inner life of individuals reveals the limitations on social rectification of any authority in the state. That is, one can legislate coerce morality, but one cannot thereby create a moral or upright person. Finally, the Duke cannot do what he wanted to do: establish a moral order in Vienna. 

The final act of the play reveals such a failure on the Dukes part and reveals the large gap between desire and fulfillment, wishes and reality. As many critics have noted, the final scene the entirety of Act 5 divides neatly into two parts. In the first part, the Duke returns as if he had really been away. The order established in this portion of the scene is certainly unjust, and Shakespeares use of dramatic irony only emphasizes the injustice of the Dukes pronouncements. Here Angelo is believed and Isabella censured, just as Angelo had predicted in Act 3 in his seduction scene: 
Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil'd name, the austereness of my life, My vouch against you, and my place i' the state, Will so your accusation overweigh, That you shall stifle in your own report And smell of calumny. 

This is the justice that would normally have occurred, even from an upright judge. Indeed, the Duke had earlier voiced the qualifications of a good judge: He who the sword of heaven will bear Should be as holy as severe; Pattern in himself to know, Grace to stand, and virtue go; More nor less to others paying Than by self-offences weighing. But in the final scene we discover that even the existence of such a judge does not guarantee real justice, for even the most honorable of judges cannot always discern the true from the false, the inner from the outer, the reality from the appearance. This is our reality. 

The second half of the final scene gives the second ordering, and this time it is a comedic one, the ending we desire and the justice we hope for. Angelo and Lucio are judged and found guilty, but both are forgiven the worst punishments. Claudio is finally restored to his sister (and presumably Julietta). And in the fashion of most good Renaissance comedies, everyone is married off marriage being the figure of true universal harmony. We get a figuring here of what the ideal world of real justice would look like. This is our desire. 

But there is still a problem here. The marriages, unlike those of most of Shakespeares comedies are forced rather than embraced. As Lucio puts it, Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging. And most troublesome, especially for modern audiences, is the Dukes proposal, or proposition, to Isabella at the end of the play: Dear Isabel, I have a motion much imports your good; Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline, What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine. So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know. The proposal itself is quite unexpected, except in that the conventions of comedy almost required it. But more intriguing and difficult is Isabellas problem: the text the script for performing the play does not determine her response. Yet there must be one. Does she readily accept the proposal and leave with the Duke to live happily ever after? Does she refuse him entirely to return to the convent to take her religious vows? Does she acquiesce, aware that finally she must succumb to the Dukes power? All are possible, given the silence of the script. And yet none is a fully satisfactory conclusion. At the end, then, the play is as troubling as it was at the beginning, and one wonders if anything has really been solved. 

A Note on the Date and Text of Measure for Measure

We know from an entry in the Revels Account Book that Measure for Measure was performed at court at Whitehall on St. Stephens Night (December 26), 1604. While this was probably not the first production of the play, there is some evidence to suggest that it was written and first performed that year: topical allusions: Lucio's allusions to a hoped-for peace may well refer to King James attempts in 1604 to negotiate a peace agreement with Spain; the proclamation to tear down the brothels may refer to one by King James in 1603 to tear down houses affected by the plague (the plague and venereal disease were often related in Renaissance literature). Moreover, many critics have noted a number of similarities between the Duke and King James a dislike of crowds, his use of disguise, and his aversion to slander. All this points, but with no certainty, to the probability that the play was written in 1604, and performed perhaps late in that year, in time to have been performed, and possibly revised, before presentation at court. 

The earliest, and thus most authoritative, text for the play is the First Folio, which was printed in 1623. This edition was set by the professional scrivener, Ralph Crane, whose characteristics and idiosyncrasies mark this text. We dont know what he had in front of him Shakespeares foul papers, prompt book copy, or something else. The relative paucity of stage directions (especially exits) suggests that the prompt copy may have been used, a manuscript which would have remained in the Companys hands (until 1623, that is) in relatively good condition, unlike foul papers. 

In any case, the Folio remains our most reliable text. Modern editors attempt with some good reason to emend Cranes work by supplying stage directions, regularizing spelling, punctuation, and mechanics, and making other corrections or substitutions suggested by previous editors. To be sure, such efforts produce a text/script that is easier for a modern to read. But that same process takes the modern reader away from the world of Shakespeares theatre. In this edition, spelling has not been regularized unless it unnecessarily impedes the readers understanding. Capitalization has been modernized, however, because the Folio conventions are too distracting. The major decision in our edition of the play is to retain the Folio punctuation, even though it is often very unlike modern punctuation conventions. We made this choice because we believe that the original punctuation provides the reader/actor with some access to the speech patterns of Shakespeares theatre and thus aids understanding and interpretation. It is always worthwhile to look at the Folio text provided on the web site. 

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