Measure for Measure

Let me just begin by saying that the Duke in Measure for Measure is one of the most fascinating characters in all of Shakespeare.  Maybe I’m just saying that because I don’t get why he does half the things he does.  But, like Hamlet, simply calling him “one of luxury, an ass, a madman” is the lazy and least interesting choice.  So I must return to the idea that he is complex and strange and fascinating and some sort of Zen Master.


For a comedy, by the way, this is a pretty dark play.  It begins with the Duke abandoning his post and leaving his authority to a well-respected friend named Angelo.  The Duke has a fairly pretentious mode of speaking, and I imagine him taking off his luxururious robe to reveal a Hawaiian shirt and shorts as he leaves with a overfilled briefcase.

Because sometimes you just need to take a break from absolute power.

But soon we discover that the Duke has not truly gone on vacation, and is merely disguised as a wandering monk so he can observe the course of law that Angelo enforces.  Apparently, a bunch of laws were passed regarding sexual practices, but the Duke never enforced them.  Knowing that the people would be upset if he randomly started punishing people for fornication, he lets Angelo take the initiative.  Unfortunately, an otherwise honorable man named Claudio is arrested for impregnating someone named Juliet.

And slated for execution.

Much of the play is essentially a dialogue between the two sides of this issue: that fornication is against the law in this society, and the absurdity that “All sects. all ages smack of this vice, and he to die for’t!” It is left up to Claudio’s sister, Isabella, to seduce Angelo and prove that the crime is not so offensive that it deserves death.  Unfortunately for Claudio, his sister is a nun, and disgusted by the idea of fornication.  Luckily for Claudio, Angelo has a nun fetish.

There is more of this in the world than you are comfortable knowing about.

The Duke is there the entire time, and he orchestrates a plot with Angelo’s former lover, Mariana, who was engaged but then Angelo broke the engagement of for no good reason.  And soon we start to realize that Angelo is a horrible, evil person despite his moral posturing.  The Duke – still disguised as a friar – advises the nun to agree to Angelo’s indecent proposal, but switch out with Mariana for the actual deed.  Angelo thinks that he is fulfilling his fantasy, but really he is consummating a lawful marriage that he failed to honor.  And that seems all well and good, and clever on the Duke’s part, except Angelo orders Claudio executed anyways.  By “Four of the clock” in the MORNING.  So yeah, Angelo is a dick.  Don’t believe me?  Izzy is initially offended by his offer to have sex in exchange for her brother’s life – when she threatens to tell people about the indecent proposal, his response is: “Who would believe thee, Isabel?”

You are a dick. Everyone hates you, secretly.

But here’s what interests me as I read this play for the first time.  The Duke is in disguise, confident that the Provost will receive a stay of execution while he waits in the prison.  But when the Provost does receive a message, it is explicit to execute Claudio and some guy named Bernadine.  So the Duke’s initial reaction when he hears this message is not something to the effect of “wait, Angelo made a sex deal and he’s going to kill her brother anyways?” but rather: “What is that Bernaidine, to be executed in the afternoon?” Seriously?  He doesn’t even break stride in his master plan to manipulate the state, he’ll take care of Claudio later.  His immediate concern is who this Bernadine guy is that nobody has heard of before.  And to answer your question, Bernadine is some guy who has been imprisoned for “nine years” and doesn’t give a shit anymore.  He just gets drunk and sleeps.  When the Provost says he is finally to be executed, Bernadine shrugs and says, “I will not consent to die this day, that’s certain.”

But there’s more to the Duke than just that.  Yes, he’s completely in control of the situation even when it seems like he has lost it for a second.  But he also maintains the illusion of what he does and does not know far longer than is necessary.  He could easily, as the Duke, call Angelo out on all of his bullshit and resolve the entire issue, but he keeps his act up through all of Act V when he returns as the Duke himself and pretends to be ignorant of everything he knows as the Friar.  Yes, everything is resolved, Claudio is released, Angelo is required to marry Mariana, and even Bernadine is released to the care of Friar Peter for moral betterment. Only some “punk” named Lucio is slated for execution by the play’s end.  And while Lucio has been a source of comedic distraction throughout the play, it’s not a horrible loss for anyone else if he dies.  It’s just strange to me that Lucio must die when Angelo is a far worse person as we have witnessed over the course of the play.  Also, unlike most Shakespearean comedies, there is no grand romantic reunion.  Mariana gets the man that she loves, but there is no indication that Angelo will treat her any better.  The Duke describes their love thus: “His unjust unkindness, that in all reason should have quench’d her love, hath, like an impediment in the current made it more violent and unruly.”

This describes perfectly why chicks always like the bad boy.

So there it is: “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.” What I like about Shakespeare is that he rarely puts out an opinion on a given issue – he puts out memorable characters on opposite sides of that issue and lets them play the problem out.  Even by the end of this play, there is no definitive moral stance given about fornication.  One employee at the local whorehouse explains his profession as “Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow that would live.” Poor people act as they need to in order to survive, and those with power do not have any greater morality.  They are all just people reacting againdt each other, and it’s interesting to see that dynamic staged.

It is not an uproarious comedy, like Merry Wives of Windsor, but it is still a thoughtful and worthwhile play.  Plus, it has the best-named character in all of Shakespeare: the executioner, Abhorson.  Abhor.  Son.  The Son of the Abhorred.  That is an awesome name.  Good job, William.

I found this in a basic Google search for "Abhorson." I want it.

And so, I end this entry in a cheerful mood.  My next entry is Much Ado About Nothing, so I look forward to that.  But let’s end this entry with a thematic summary of this comedy, first:

“O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

One Response to “Measure for Measure”
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  1. […] creations.  But we will have to see.  [Actually, that description is very similar to the Duke in Measure for Measure – the Author, […]

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