A rogue

John Liston as Pompey, painted by Samuel de Wilde in 1812Pompey is clearly a rogue. He acts as a tapster, or barman, in Mistress Overdone's house, but, as Escalus realises, however much Pompey lies about his real activity, he is ‘partly a bawd'. Although he has the name of a famous Roman leader, he is ‘Pompey the Great' only in the proportions of his backside; there is nothing noble about him. However, in Measure for Measure he has a more significant role than just being a ‘low-life' character, since, in exposing the corruption of Vienna to the audience, he also exposes many of the problems innate in dealing with it.

Pompey's wit, fluency and astuteness

The audience quickly realises that Pompey is far more quick-witted and fluent than the constable, Elbow, whose job it is to try to control him:

  • Pompey's long-winded and witty version of events when he is brought before Escalus (in Act II sc i) arouses much laughter at the expense of the legitimate officer of the law, thereby demonstrating that, in Shakespeare's Vienna, there is little chance of true justice being meted out.
  • In addition, some of Pompey's remarks have a ring of common sense. He knows that young men and women have sexual appetites which may be hard to control:
Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city? ... If you head and hang all that offend that way but for ten year together, you'll be glad to give out a commission for more heads.
  • Even more astutely, he knows that law is a man-made system which can be altered as laws are made or rescinded. In response to Escalus's question,

‘Is it a lawful trade?'

he replies,

‘If the law would allow it, sir.'

In making this comment he may suggest to the audience a distinction between justice, which has a moral quality, and the law, which consists of rules laid down by a government.

Pompey and Lucio

When he is taken to prison in Act III sc ii, Pompey's predicament reveals to the audience the nastier side of Lucio, who not only refuses to stand bail for Pompey but who hypocritically denounces him as a bawd and gloats at his predicament:

Well, then, imprison him. If imprisonment be the due of a bawd, why, ‘tis his right. Bawd he is doubtless, and of antiquity too: bawd born.

Pompey in prison

Once in prison Pompey's role is again to reveal to the audience the flaws of Vienna's legal system:

  • While Claudio languishes in his cell, expecting imminent execution for getting the woman he regards as his wife pregnant, Pompey, whose whole existence involves prostitution and sexual licence, is invited to escape his full penalty by assisting the executioner
  • For Pompey, death is not – as it so clearly is for Isabella - the boundary between this earthly life and eternity, when the soul must be prepared for God's judgement, but a matter for coarse jesting:
If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can (cut off his head); but if he be a married man, he's his wife's head; and I can never cut off a woman's head. (Act IV sc ii)
  • Here he is referring to the belief, expressed by St Paul in the New Testament, that within marriage ‘the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church' (Ephesians 5:23).
  • The last time we see Pompey he is preparing to execute Barnardine, a man whom the Duke describes as ‘Unfit to live or die!' For Pompey, life and death have no spiritual dimension; his perceptions are all to do with the physical senses, and his last words in the play reflect this:
He that drinks all night, and is hanged betimes in the morning, may sleep the sounder all the next day. (Act IV sc iii)
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.