Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

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Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

This reading of Measure for Measure will try to do more than draw attention to the extent to which Shakespeare goes beyond the conventional happy ending in this play. There are indications that the conclusions of many of the comedies are not really meant to bear up to close scrutiny; in Jaques¹ words, their loving voyages are not victual¹d for very long. In Measure for Measure we are openly challenged to question the adequacy of attaching a happy ending to a deeply troubling play. It seems that a stern question, regarding human nature and the adequacy of the comic resolution, cannot be deferred any longer. How do we preserve a community that will sustain and encourage the virtues after every Jaques gets his Jill? These were the fears that Jaques voiced, with bad timing but better perspicacity in As You Like It. The attempt to flee civilization and seek refuge in the imagination was undertaken because the prevalent state of civil society placed human integrity and virtue in grave jeopardy. Appropriate political measures are necessary to ensure that the human renewals and fresh beginnings celebrated in the comedies can be preserved and fostered when we leave Arden to resume our places in the workaday world. This reading will suggest that Measure for Measure is not a celebration of family values, The play points towards both the political virtuosity which sustains the comic oikos, and the humbler self-knowledge that preserves the integrity of the virtuoso. Human virtue can only be chosen in freedom, but we need not deny ourselves the opportunity of ensuring that this choice is not stifled by the subtly related powers of abstract intellectualism and carnal necessity. It is thus desirable that the moderate pleasures of humanity are revealed to their best advantage; the statesman¹s task is to direct the erotic energies of his subjects towards their true fruition. In this essay, we shall concern ourselves with Shakespeare¹s suggestively incomplete account of the process through which a self-professed philosopher-king forsakes contemplation to rescue his carnally en-mired dukedom.

While the subject matter of this play is unequivocally political, Shakespeare is not offering political blueprints. We must learn from his unequalled ability to depict and illustrate the workings of the human soul. Poetry is a tool at the disposal of the statesman and Shakespeare pleads convincingly for the respectability of his art. However, the imagination cannot create virtue in the real world; only individuals can do this and they are influenced by other factors that reside outside the purview of the imagination.

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"Shakespeare's Measure for Measure." 21 Mar 2018
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Statesmanship has to deal with the object world, and its task is to overcome the external obstacles to the recognition of man¹s capacity for true humanity. The poet¹s task is to educate the ruler in self-knowledge; like the slave at a Roman Triumph, he must continually remind his ruler that it is no disgrace to be a man.

Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's most dramatic depiction of the battle between the desires and reason. The initial situation is the opposite of the standard comic beginning. The political consequences of comic toleration are seen to be just as unfortunate as the repression imposed on the desires by rational inflexibility. In the real world, such extreme measures set in motion dialectical processes that bring the other extreme into power thereby compounding the damage caused by the original action. Comedy and tragedy are not remedies for each other; we seek a qualitatively superior model for human conduct that will embody the insights of both and the faults of neither. We seek to end the increasingly typical pattern of events that alternates tyranny with sporadic bouts of anarchistic democracy. Ultimately, both positions derive from a pessimistic view of man, which could be used to justify tyrannical tragedy, or celebrate anarchic comedy. This misanthropic model spawned the revengeful and vicious dialectic that demanded measure for measure. Such an alternation between extremes must be replaced by a more moderate and enlightened view. This model must realize and sustain the human potentialities that were identified in the middle comedies, while it guards against weaknesses that can now be addressed as such. As Vincentio observed "There is so great a fever on goodness that only the dissolution of it must cure it" (III.ii.222-23). In other words, a radical 'transvaluation of values' must be undertaken. We have to go beyond the hypocritical Œfamily values¹ of Angelo (how much is your family worth?) and the scarcely different free market values of unpurged Vienna.

Although Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure is luckier than Rosalind's father and Prospero, in that he has not been deposed for his inefficiency, he is clearly not very far from this stage. Just as the two deposed Dukes appointed deputies to handle affairs of state, so Vincentio commissions Angelo to perform a similar office at an even more advanced state of social decay. A threat of anarchy creates a pressing need for a strong ruler, who is compelled by circumstances to become a tyrant. The comic resolution of such a situation would only set this whole sorry cycle in motion again. In order to recover his Duchy, Vincentio must undergo an internal transformation involving the repudiation of his abstract philosophical perspective. The parallel between the city and the soul is strikingly evident. Only through discovering his humanity will he be able to preside over the renewal of Vienna. The paradigm shift from regarding the soul as a self-contained fortified seat of reason to emphasizing its vocation as a self-knowing educator of the desires is powerful; it mirrors the process through which the philosophic soul returns to the cave.

The conclusion of As You Like It was typical of the comic genre in that forgiveness and the love of a good mate are supposed to ensure that everyone will live happily ever after. These measures also presume that the former villains will 'sin no more' once they are received into the wholesome embrace of the comic community. The problem is that the comic formula, 'forgive and forget,' does not possess an irresistible potency that overwhelms the will of the object of magnanimity. Vincentio's rule over Vienna seems to have been characterized by a benign tolerance that is closely related to the abstract and escapist attitude we have referred to. His professed distaste for crowds and his reputed preference for 'dark corners' suggest that mankind is the least object of his study; he loves his subjects dearly but at a distance. The testimony of Escalus that he "above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself" (III.ii.232-33) suggests that, in professing philosophy, he favored his solipsistic concerns above the chores of statesmanship. Even the initial measures that he takes to retain his Dukedom indicate a Machiavellian fondness for impersonal manipulation. This is far removed from the respect for individuals (himself included) that marks any genuine educative process. It is not sufficient for the Duke to Œknow himself¹ as Vienna; he must come of his dark corners and see himself as Vincentio.

Vincentio appointed Angelo to rule temporarily in his stead because he was confronted with a rapidly deteriorating situation in which reason and desire, goodness and love, had become bitterly opposed to each other. As we observed earlier, unregulated comedy inevitably leads to anarchy and the proliferation of desire. This situation invites unflattering judgments regarding human fallenness, and as a result goodness becomes defined as the total repression of all desire. Angelo is the very embodiment of this conception of virtue, and Vincentio expects that he will wage unrelenting war against all lascivious conduct and purge the city of the fever that has afflicted it. This will make it possible for Vincentio to intervene and reintroduce moderate rule, and thus gain the respect of the chastised citizenry. The Draconian measures taken by his puritanical opposition will rebound to their discredit and free Vincentio to resume his former ways, now that his Machiavellian 'rare example' has restored cosmological balance.

The situation that unfolds proves how badly Vincentio had underestimated the effects ensuing from the disjunction between virtue and the desires. This play also displays the consequences of a literal application of the measures described in Plato's Republic. Austerity and abstinence cannot be allowed to become the measure of virtue in a situation where every human relationship seems to be governed by greed and desire. Claudio and Juliet were driven to illicitly consummate their love due to the inability of her friends and relatives to provide them with a sufficient dowry; similarly, Angelo's marriage to Mariana was made impossible by the loss of her dowry. We cannot really fault anybody for withdrawing from a fragmented world wherein the insatiable raging of the desires makes every human relationship vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fortune. Isabella's withdrawal to a nunnery was occasioned by precisely these reasons. Her family's lack of means made it impossible for her to marry; she preferred the harshness of a cloistered life to an existence of genteel decay, correctly recognizing that the latter course would leave her all too vulnerable to loneliness and temptation. The Duke's lofty leniency only had the effect of forcing his citizens to choose between vice and a sterile loveless chastity.

Angelo is the best example of the injurious effects of unnatural erotic restraint. The deputy pursues the hapless Claudio with such fury that his victim's confession of guilt is an uncanny description of his persecutor's rabid conduct: "Our natures do pursue like rats that ravin down their proper bane, a thirsty evil; and when we drink we die" (I.ii.128-30). The power-drunk Deputy goes totally beyond the scope of his commission and institutes a reign of terror. He would be an angel with a flaming sword, mercilessly punishing humanity for any expression of erotic need or desire. Angelo rejects Escalus's view that under compelling circumstances he too could have succumbed to desire, distinguishing sharply between temptations and the sinful acts themselves. He has committed adultery in his heart, and he fights the natural consequences of his pregnant desires with grim, fearful fervor. Angelo's conception of virtue is violent and unnatural; his soul is a Hobbesian battlefield where all of the desires wage war against each other. He is totally incapable of distinguishing between natural and vicious desires; this has turned his nature into something rancid and poisoned, totally incapable of giving or receiving love.

Angelo's words to Isabella when she comes to plead for her brother's life are all too consistent with her character. He suggests that the best thing for a sinner is death since it enables him to leave this world. Only in this way can a man receive forgiveness and "go and sin no more" because worldly mercy is only license to sin many times over (II.ii.100-04). Once a man has been claimed by sin he is doomed. Original sin cannot be washed away. It is a historical event in a man¹s life when this sin breaks out of our deepest concealed thoughts; not all the perfumes of Araby may wash away this blemish. There are those who have not sinned, and there are those who have. This is very much in keeping with a rigidly Calvinistic view of predestination. Keats saw the world to be a vale for soul-making; Angelo regards it as a barren wilderness in which temptation is resisted. As we have observed, he understands virtue in the starkest, most negative terms.

In this situation love and virtue become opposed to each other, since the latter cannot reach outside to recognize any of the desires. Similarly love can only be understood in terms of sexual lust, since it is impossible for the virtuous man to be legitimately attracted to the fallen nature of another. Love can only be perceived as man¹s corrupted substance crying out to its own kind, a siren song that must be resisted at all costs. Virtue becomes defined as self-denial, as the refusal of love and the indiscriminate persecution of the desires. When Angelo, in spite of himself, is attracted to Isabella, his first thought is that the Devil, despairing of ensnaring him through vice, has now baited his hook with a saint (II.ii.179-80). Since he does not believe in the possibility of love, he can only express his desire for her in the form of lust. When he 'succumbs' to his desire for Isabella, this only confirms his irrevocably fallen nature and he finds a perverse relief in being able to give full expression to his desires, which have grown wolf-like under their unnatural restraint. As he announces ominously, "I have begun and now I give my sensual race the rein" (II.iv.159-60). No longer seeking to lead out a long and inglorious life of self-negation, he will instead abandon himself to a short and gaudy night of tyrannical abandon.

Isabella understands her chastity in a way that is largely similar to Angelo's austere virtue. We first meet her at the convent where she is about to become a nun, pleading for stricter restraint and discipline in an order already notorious for its austerity. Once she has taken her final vows, she will no longer be able to hold normal conversation with men: "If you must speak, you must not show your face, Or, if you show your face, you must not speak" (I.iv.12-13). Speech and deed can never be allowed to occur together since this would only reveal the corruption inherent in our nature. It is understandable that Isabella should regard her remarkable interview with Angelo, where he undertakes to barter her brother's life for her chastity, as the Devil's attempt to trip her up during her last normal encounter with a man. The hysterical fury that she displays when Claudio pleads with her for his life can only be justified in this context. She is fearfully devoted to a contentless idea of chastity that makes it impossible for her to entertain affection for anything in the world. She leaps to the conclusion that even filial love will lead to sin and disgrace. She must become convinced that it is no sin to love, and no merely comic conclusion will satisfy her misgivings. The Duke must set these fears at rest by creating a community that will sustain and be sustained by genuine love. He must distinguish between the human, the merely natural, and the unnatural.

Angelo's suspicions regarding the propensities of human nature are not groundless. Duke Vincentio's 'laissez faire' attempts to found a community on comedy only revealed that any attempt at returning to nature would only expose the animal in man. Man is transformed into a monstrous animal. His infinite desires can only be appeased through increasingly perverse and unnatural means. According to Angelo's way of thinking, the purpose of society is Hobbesian, to restrain the animal in man. The state functions as a cage or cave in which the desires are chained and chastised mercilessly. Vincentio must look towards a more enlightened conception of the state: one in which the infinite desires of man, which made him so dangerous in the state of nature, will be educated and allowed to give expression to his true human nature.

Like Jaques, Angelo is deeply skeptical towards the effects ensuing from the comic panacea for all sins: forgiveness. He believes that once our potentially infinite desires have come out into the open it is impossible for them to return to their original state of innocent finitude. Comedy is ineffectual after the desires have reached adult, tyrannical proportions. He denies the distinction between sin and sinner because he believes that every heart teems with evil desires, like his own. Isabella, under Lucio's expert direction succeeds in drawing this quality out of his bosom, but, like Jaques' ability to suck melancholy out of an egg, this does more harm than good since it only occasions the proliferation of his crimes. Angelo will proceed with Claudio's execution after having his way with Isabella in order to silence him. Isabella is slated to follow him before she can denounce this murderous combination of power, desire, and guilt. In this regard, Angelo anticipates Macbeth; through his tragic self-knowledge he sees that he cannot be forgiven as long as his desires continue to rage and fester. The comic form cannot accommodate this predicament; it is better suited to showing people that they are loved in spite of their shortcomings; not that they are worthy of it. The just ruler must enable men like Angelo to both know and like themselves. He must show all of his subjects that virtue is best characterized by generosity rather than by misanthropy, and by the potency of spiritual love rather than through physical chastity. If As You Like It is a commentary on the parable of the Prodigal Son, then Measure for Measure seems to be about the parable of the Talents. Vincentio's speech to Angelo at the very beginning of this play lends support to this supposition:

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do. Not light them for ourselves; for if our virtues did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike as if we had them not. Spirits are but finely touched but to fine issues, nor Nature never lends the smallest scruple of her excellence, but like a thrifty goddess she determines herself the glory of creditor, both thanks and use. (I.i.32-40)

The idea is that we should use our natural capacities to their best advantage because otherwise we do not show gratitude to God who endowed us with them. The emphasis is clearly on natural grace immanent in our nature. This is contrasted to the practice of attributing goodness to fortuitous divine intervention (special grace) which miraculously salvages and sustains our intrinsically worthless natures. Shakespeare reiterates the point made by Socrates in the Euthyphro, that human virtue is for our own good and for this reason pleasing to God in that it glorifies the goodness of his creation. We should not emulate the third servant in the parable who buried his talent in the ground for fear of losing it. Like Angelo, this servant believes in an unjust God who reaps where he did not sow (Matthew 25.24); he refuses to brave fortune to further the interests of his master at the risk of his welfare, which is regarded in wholly negative terms. He does not appreciate the value of what has been entrusted to him, and so regards his humanity as nothing more than a nuisance and potential liability.

The Platonic overtones of the light imagery used in this quotation are also quite important to our argument. The exercise of virtue vindicates our human condition as it sheds light on it; the Socratic equation of knowledge and virtue is thereby sustained. In emphasizing that virtue should "go forth of us" Shakespeare is also drawing our attention to the relation of virtue and generosity. The desires are the means by which human essence overflows into existence to express and realize its virtue. The light of our virtue serves as an example and reminder to all other men, of their own capacities for humanity. Vincentio must display, by his own example, the efficacy of virtue. This means that he must forsake his aloofness and actively intervene in the affairs of his city. Only in this way will the former "Duke of Dark Corners" (IV.iv.157) become virtuous in his own right. The various actions that the disguised Duke takes to thwart the dastardly schemes of Angelo must be understood in this light, as Vincentio realizes that the desires must be recognized and addressed properly. The abyss that opens up between reason and the desires threatens to swallow up and destroy both city and soul if they are not properly related to each other. Only actions guided by a proper apprehension of humanity can relieve this internecine conflict within both city and soul that will otherwise lead mind and desire to devour each other.

Vincentio's original attitude towards human life is expressed while he shrives Claudio. He describes human life as an ephemeral and valueless state, the benefits of which are greatly exaggerated (III.i.5-41). The process of self-discovery occurs when he hears of the corruption that Angelo carried within himself. Lucio's allegation that the Duke himself was not immune from the vices of his less temperate subjects underscores Vincentio's belated and incomplete awareness that virtue must be manifested in acts of generosity. Lucio's claim is strengthened by the parallel patterns followed by city and soul which suggest that the Duke's own desires are not exempt from the vices that have afflicted the desiring part of his city in the absence of proper supervision. Regardless of whether these claims have any basis in fact, he is made aware of the pressing need for his virtue to be vindicated through action. He now admits to Escalus that he has seen the bankruptcy of his previous moral philosophy in words we have quoted already: "There is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it." This recognition suggests that the dissolution of fever will cure goodness and the dissolution of goodness will cure the fever. The fever of the desires and the conception of goodness that is opposed to it are complementary aspects of the same problem. Vincentio implies that this virtue will emphasize continual action and discount comic stability:

It is as dangerous to be aged in any kind of course as it is virtuous to be constant in any kind of undertaking. There is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but security enough to make friendships accursed. This news is old enough, yet it is every day's news. (III.ii.226-230)

The world cannot be governed by Cosmology because human virtue must be continually exercised so that the integrity of relationships is maintained.

Although it is possible to find fault with Vincentio¹s blithe forgiveness of Angelo, we should remember that Angelo has in fact been condemned to live as a man among men, the fate he most abhorred. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that Mariana is now the possessor of all of his worldly goods; the ill-fortune that shipwrecked her previous betrothal has now been reversed. Isabella has likewise made amends for the life-negating importance that she attached to her chastity. By publicly proclaiming, falsely, that she has lost her virginity under very dubious circumstances, she is freed to reaquaint herself with the meaning of love

Vincentio realizes that he can no longer be the serene director of a morality play that he will not deign to enter. He must plunge himself into the murky waters of politics and practice "Craft against Vice" (III.ii.277), but this "rough magic" is only one half of his assignment. As we have seen, human nature, unlike that of the animals, cannot be left to its own devices. Man must seek self-knowledge precisely because he is not a beast or god. In a volatile context he is liable to become demonic when not part of a community where his desires can be directed towards their legitimate expression. This salvation is the only kind that is possible for men such as Angelo, who realize full well the impossibility of returning to a state of artificial innocence and feigned virtue. The desires must be directed beyond the Scylla of repression and the Charybdis of promiscuity. Forgiveness is only truly effectual when its processes are not equated and confused with those of forgetfulness. Only understanding can warrant forgiveness and such understanding must be founded on self-knowledge.

At the end of the play, we find that although Vincentio has remembered to educate his city, he has forgotten his own soul. While he proposes to set an example by marrying, it is not sufficient that he should take on an attractive young virgin as insurance against the twin extremes of bodily concupiscence and abstract intellectualism. Above all, he should try harder to know himself; this can only occur after he appears before his fellow men as a sinner who prays for grace. At the conclusion of the morality play that he has just directed, Vincentio alone was self-exempted from the general need for public repentance. Although forced to give up his pose of an unmoved mover, and scramble frantically to remedy Angelo¹s evil, Vincentio still behaves as the director of the play. He will not make public atonement for his own part in the corruption of Vienna; instead, he expects appear as a deus-ex-machina to triumphantly sweep his heroine off her feet to general applause. In this regard he greatly resembles Prospero, another director and rough-magician, who must belatedly acknowledge his own flawed humanity and acknowledge Caliban before leaving his island. Likewise, it is through publicly spurning the Duke¹s offer of marriage that Isabella will liberate Vincentio from his own enchantments.

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