Measure for Measure Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
The nature of humanity
An ordered created world
- God, the Creator, was at the top
- Next to God in the order of creation were the angelic spirits: there were thought to be nine orders, or ranks: Seraphs, Cherubs, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Powers, Dominions, Archangels, Angels.
As spirits, these were unchangeable, bodiless intermediaries between God and man; although they did not have bodies, they were thought to be able to create themselves bodies out of air so that they could appear to humans
- Below these spirits were human beings, who were thought to be unique in having both a body, like animals, but also a spirit (or soul)
- Below mankind came animals, having body but no soul
- Finally were plants; then stones.
The state as a body
- Just as God is at the top of the hierarchy in the Universe
- so are kings and other rulers within the state
- so is the head, the seat of reason, within the body.
Shakespeare often compares the state, or body politic, to the human body.
- For example, just as the physical body may be subject to disease, so the state may be riddled with corruption
- In Measure for Measure Shakespeare uses sexually-transmitted illness (venereal disease) not only as an actual ailment affecting Lucio and his friends, who have ‘purchased diseases' at Mistress Overdone's brothel, but also as a metaphor for the corruption which has been allowed to spread and infect Vienna.
Reason versus passion
- Because people have a soul, they can aspire to reach beyond their body and mortality
- If they debase their soul, and lose their reason – especially through drunkenness or by giving way to extreme passion – then they are no better than animals.
Getting the balance right
- Pompey, Mistress Overdone, Barnardine and their associates are close to animals. All they care about is physical gratification and sensual pleasure
- On the other hand, both Angelo and Isabella react against such human weakness
- Angelo turns out to have only too many frailties – as he comes close to admitting in Act II sc iv when he tells Isabella, ‘ We are all frail.'
- His name Angelo turns out to be false – it is ‘the devil's crest' (Act II sc iv) – in spite of his reputation as:
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense;
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind. (Act I sc iv)
- Isabella is also seen as someone who rejects human frailty
- When we first meet Isabella (Act I sc iv), she is asking for ‘a more strict restraint', even though she is about to enter a closed nunnery, or convent
- As the play progresses, her horror at the idea of sexual activity seems extreme, e.g., Angelo's foul attempt at sexual blackmail
- Some audiences find her violent response to the terrified Claudio almost more outrageous. Addressing Claudio as ‘You beast!', which suggests that she thinks he is below the level of other humans, she appears incapable, in the violence of her passionate reaction, of reasoning with him:
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice? ...
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death;
No word to save thee.
Creation and new life
- For Pompey, Mistress Overdone and Lucio, sex is merely sensual, involving no commitment
- Lucio gloats that he has got ‘a wench with child' and has denied that he is the father: ‘they would else have married me to the rotten medlar.' (Act IV sc iii)
- In contrast, Claudio has got Juliet pregnant, but regards her as ‘fast my wife' (Act I sc ii).
That respites me a life, whose very comfort
Is still a dying horror!
Attitudes to sexual activity
- For Shakespeare's audience, marriage under the previous Roman Catholic regime had been regarded as a sacrament – a special sign of spiritual grace.
- Even though Protestants did not accept marriage as a sacrament, it was nevertheless an important ceremony involving vows made in the presence of God.
- Although there was inevitably sexual activity outside marriage, it was very much frowned upon, and the woman would usually be considered disgraced. Shakespeare himself got Ann Hathaway pregnant, and had to marry her hastily before the child arrived, so he would be well aware of this. (See Author > 1564 - 1592 > Stratford Beginnings).
- Juliet admits that she has sinned:
The blessing of procreation
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry. (Act I sc iv)
Measure for Measure is known as a ‘problem play', and it is just such questions as how we are to regard human sexual activity and creation which makes it problematic.
- This means that she will abstain from all sexual activity
- When she is a nun even a conversation with a man will be strictly limited, as Sister Francisca explains to her in Act I sc iv:
But in the presence of the prioress;
Then, if you speak, you must not show your face;
Or if you show your face, you must not speak.
Isabella tells Angelo that sexual immorality is ‘a vice that most I do abhor' (Act II sc ii):
- She is determined to ‘live chaste' (Act II sc iv) even if it means that her brother will die
- Ironically, the terms she uses to reject sexual relations with Angelo have obvious sexual connotations (see also Characterisation):
Th' impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame. (Act II sc iv)
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. (Act II sc ii)
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