Re-reading Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

(1) If, as has been said, Hamlet is the Shakespearean play for the nineteenth century and King Lear for the twentieth, is Measure for Measure a good pick for the twenty-first? It certainly chimes with the kinds of moral obsessions that dominate social media. Angelo as sexual predator, and telling Isabella that nobody will believe her if she publicly accuses him, would have put him near the top of the Renaissance version of a “Shitty Media Men” list. And his ghosting of Mariana after destroying her reputation also seems very contemporary. But more than that I’d focus on the matter of virtue signaling.

What we mean by virtue signaling isn’t the public display of virtue, which I don’t think anyone would object to. People acting in a noticeably brave or idealistic manner is fine. What makes it fair game for calling out is when such behaviour is meant to draw attention and applause, and more specifically when it is directed at the judgment and policing of the rest of us. It’s the public grandstanding of moral principles that the virtue signaler wants to see applied to other people. Or at least other people first. It calls on other people, usually those most directly affected, to make sacrifices for our own moral principles. Claudio sees straight to the heart of the matter upon his arrest. It’s “for a name” that Angelo is now coming after him, “’Tis surely for a name.” I can’t think of a more succinct definition of virtue signaling.

Angelo is again the main culprit here, but the importance of appearing to be virtuous is just as important to the Duke. He affects not to care about the adulation of the masses, and indeed says he doesn’t trust the kind of man who does affect it, but his whole justification for giving Angelo the job of whipping Vienna into line is because he doesn’t want to risk having the public turn against him. Everybody wants to seem virtuous without putting in the work. Which I think suggests that they don’t really believe in virtue in the first place.

This gets at something that always gets my back up about this play: the idea that Angelo somehow changes, falls, or breaks bad. Given the way he treated Mariana, he was clearly a total shit from the start. He doesn’t become a hypocrite after being tempted into sin by Isabella, but has always been a hypocrite. As most hypocrites are. Then he proves himself not just to be vicious but a coward, reneging on his deal with Isabella and signing off on Claudio’s execution because he’s afraid Claudio might come after him. That’s not his lust talking. Finally, I don’t think he’s in any way redeemed at the end. He’s just willing to take his lumps after being caught.

(2) Who is this Lucio fellow anyway? Tony Tanner calls him “something of a Mercutio, something of a Parolles, and something all himself.” The list of Dramatis Personae gives him the title of “a Fantastic,” which one edition glosses as an “extravagant, showy dresser/person with fanciful ideas.” No help at all. Are his clothes ever mentioned in the play? And what are his ideas?

I’ve seen him described as one of Shakespeare’s “border-crossing” characters, but that’s not quite right since unlike Viola or Hal he doesn’t need to disguise himself or even change his character to travel between worlds as different as the court and the stews of Vienna. He belongs in both places, and in a play full of “seeming” and disguises he is what he is.

He’s also often referred to as being a demonic figure, with his name meant to recall Lucifer, but role in the play doesn’t seem at all the same. He’s only like Lucifer in having so many good lines.

Samuel Johnson found Lucio’s punishment (“Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging”) a bit heavy, but thought it reflected how “men easily forgive wrongs which are not committed against themselves.” Yes (and this has always been the case), but it also reflects how serious a crime slander was considered in the Renaissance, something we have a hard time relating to today.

Personally, I sort of like Lucio. He’s a witty and flexible character with his heart seeming to be in the right place most of the time. He really does put some effort into helping Claudio, proving himself a friend in need. Furthermore, what he says about the Duke isn’t much worse than what Falstaff says about Hal, is it? And can we really say his estimation of the Duke is that far off the mark? Perhaps the Duke has been a scapegrace. That’s certainly the way he’s presented in the 2006 film version anyway. And as Northrop Frye observes, “while the bulk of what he [Lucio] says is nonsense, one phrase, ‘the old fantastical Duke of dark corners’ is the most accurate description of him that the play affords.” Note: there’s that word “fantastic” again.

(3) You often see Measure for Measure described as a tragicomedy, dark comedy, or problem play. It was lumped in with the comedies in the First Folio, but it always sat uneasily with that label. Everyone gets married at the end, for example, but you could argue nobody is happy about it. Marriage is more like penance than a joyous sacrament.

Personally, I read it as a very dark play. There’s no “green world” to retreat to, but only the prison-house (“circummured”) world of Vienna. But, and I think this is the important point being made, the stews and the dungeon are as natural as the Forest of Arden. Isabella, for example, wants repression, “wishing a more strict restraint” than the already strict convent she’s joining. “Blood, thou art blood.” That’s a law of nature, and it’s not a good thing. Or really it’s beyond good and evil. Rats pursue their nature as we do ours: they “ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil.” Evil here meaning nothing immoral but only self-destructive.

If you think that freedom or liberty (the latter a more loaded term for Shakespeare than for us) are natural human desires, and good, that’s fine, but so are their opposites: cruelty and oppression. And not only natural, but desirable. And not only desirable, but fair and just. This is not a lower order of nature, since it’s primarily identified with the city, commerce, and law. Read the ending here however you want, but the point is, happy or sad, comic or tragic, it’s meant to represent an equitable resolution. Equity not as grace, but as just desserts. Like the rats, everyone has to drink their poison. It’s in our nature.


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