The nature of humanity

All human beings are creatures – that is, they are created. Shakespeare's audience believed that everything and everybody was created by God, the all-powerful and loving Father of the universe.

An ordered created world

Great Chain of BeingAt the time Shakespeare was writing, the universe was seen as a hierarchy, known as the Chain of Being:

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

Parallel orders

  • 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

Shakespeare frequently stresses that it is reason which informs the soul of man and makes humans higher than animals:

  • 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

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare shows also us that it is possible to
go to the other extreme. Those who forget that they are not angels, but instead have human weaknesses, are just as unaware of their own humanity as those who behave like animals.
The audience is introduced to both kinds of characters:
  • 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:
A man whose blood
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:
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
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.
Both Angelo and Isabella have to learn, as the play progresses, what it means to be a fallible human being. (See also Characterisation.)

Creation and new life

Part of human nature is sexual activity. Shakespeare shows that, here too, it is important to get the balance right:
  • 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).
For the audience, seeing the character Juliet clearly pregnant on stage raises the issue of the conditions under which human beings should create new life (just as seeing Abhorson in the prison raises the question of whether humans should take life).
Claudio's condemnation to death for creating life raises these issues in a particularly paradoxical and problematic way. Juliet comments on this herself when, hearing of Claudio's imminent death, she cries out:
O injurious love,
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:
‘I do repent me as it is an evil / And take the shame with joy' (Act II sc iii)

The blessing of procreation

But in Measure for Measure the arrival of a child is also described in terms which suggest it is a right and natural part of the creative process. Ironically, it is the dissolute Lucio who uses this lovely imagery of increase:
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. (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.


At the other extreme from characters such as Mistress Overdone and the prostitutes, and perhaps in reaction to them, Isabella wants to enter a convent where she will take a vow of chastity:

  • 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:
When you have vow'd, you must not speak with men
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):
Were I under the terms of death,
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)
Angelo, too, has denounced sexual activity, and yet is, ironically, attracted by the very chastity which will lead Isabella to reject him:
Never could the strumpet
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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