Shakespeare's sexual morality.
Measure for Measure

From time to time Shakespeare has felt the need to emphasise particular basic values. An example of this is
Measure for Measure, one of his dark comedies right before the major tragedies. The title echoes the Sermon on the Mount and in spite of comic episodes the contents of the play are certainly serious, dealing at length with the death penalty and with the complexities of sin and virtue as applied to the natural drive of sexuality.

All of the second, third and fourth acts discuss justice, morality and power, while the last act returns to a fast and vigorous settling of issues. The story is arranged around connections which in other plays are mentioned only in prologues and final summations.

Judges, offenders and victims

The play tells the tale of a mature duke of Vienna. For fourteen years his rule has been extremely humane, not to say lenient. The result is that the law has fallen into disrespect and matters threaten to get out of hand: “... so our decrees, Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead; And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose, The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart Goes all decorum.” Duke Vincentio feels that he himself is not the right person to pull in the reins. His own permissive attitude must bear much of the blame for the city's troubles and so a stricter regime would not be understood coming from him.

He therefore leaves the management of Vienna to a young man by the telling name of Angelo, with old Escalus to assist him, in order to see whether Angelo's austere rectitude can cope better with the problems. The duke also wants to observe, secretly, how his deputies' characters hold up in positions of power.

Once the duke is gone the zealous Angelo starts to apply the city's laws rigorously. In the manner of young idealists he is straight-laced and dogmatic: “Sparrows must not build in his house-eaves, because they are lecherous”. He will eradicate illicit sex with clear-cut methods according to the letter of the law. He attempts, for instance, to stamp out brothels by having the buildings pulled down, notwithstanding the tendency of the establishments just to transfer their business elsewhere.

A certain Claudio has made his fiancée Juliet pregnant before they are married. Fornication is forbidden according to a law that has been allowed to sleep; Angelo reactivates the law and throws Claudio into jail, to be executed the next morning. He is impervious to the entreaties of Claudio's friends and others, and indifferent to Juliet's fate. Like Henry the Fifth the jurist maintains that it is wrong for a judge to be influenced by personal considerations; true pity is actually shown through justice, which impartially protects the innocent. Punishment is necessary to deter other would-be offenders, and Angelo is at any time ready to subject himself to the same rules as the citizens.

Ageing Escalus finds his judgements harsh and asks whether even Angelo might not have broken the law had circumstances been conducive? Claudio's sister Isabella has more comprehensive objections: There are many other malefactors than her brother; the court is unjust if it lets only Claudio die for society and the rest. Man is rash and often commits some wrong; a judge should strive for divine forgiveness in a world full of imperfections. What would our lot be if Christ, the supreme judge, had exercised the law in Angelo's fashion?

Beautiful Isabella, who is on the verge of entering a convent, has been sent to Angelo to obtain pardon for her brother, but the longer the judge talks to her the more his concern for the sacrosanct inviolability of the law disappears. In the course of their conversation he is completely bewitched by Isabella. Having never before experienced an erotic passion he is quite unprepared for the havoc which lust now wreaks within him. His virtue is that of one never tempted; he has always censured sinners without understanding anything of their situation and, like many moral zealots, when he falls, he falls heavily. He proceeds to abuse his position: He will let Claudio go if the sister will go to bed with him. Still the bigot secretly lets Claudio's sentence stand, for now he is afraid of Claudio's revenge.

Angelo's moral position is now far worse than that of any of the others: Planning to deflower a novice-nun, he has ordered her brother's execution to cover up his own crime — a particularly serious form of murder, in fact. Isabella he has tried to frighten into silence by threatening to turn any accusation she makes against her; because of his standing and reputation, people will believe his word against hers.

Isabella meanwhile has confided in a friar (actually the duke in disguise), who has arranged matters so that Angelo, in the total darkness of the rendezvous, is in reality lured into bed with a substitute, Mariana whom he was previously engaged to but has broken with. So he has now slept with Mariana, and has used would-be perjury and murder as well as blackmail to get Isabella, while Claudio and Juliet slept together by mutual consent.

Furthermore, both Angelo and Claudio have failed to marry because the bride has no dowry. But Claudio has made a binding contract and considers Juliet his wife in fact; they have only kept their affair dark until such time as her family comes across with what is due to her. Angelo, on the other hand, has cast Mariana aside because her brother, who was her only support and was to provide her dowry, has been lost at sea. To get out of his unprofitable engagement he adds insult to injury by pretending that the destitute girl has been found out in dishonour.

The last act sets out the duke's answer to his deputy's behaviour, and makes interesting comments on everybody's attitudes to sex and crime.

Revelation as punishment

Angelo had declared himself content to punish overt offences and was not overly concerned to reveal crimes that were kept dark. Duke Vincentio thinks otherwise; and since people are devious, a main task for Vincentio is to uncover everything that they try to conceal. He is equally scrupulous in other respects. A murderer has been in prison for 9 years. Everyone thinks he is guilty and should be executed; but as long as no decisive proof has been obtained, the duke lets him live. The duke will not even have a confessed murderer executed until he has made his peace with heaven. Vincentio takes care that no death sentence at all is carried out rashly. Claudio he manages to hide away; and the head of another prisoner, who died a natural death, is substituted to make Angelo believe the execution has taken place.

In his function as judge Vincentio finds it important that a culprit should agree that the punishment is just. As so often in Shakespeare's plays, the accused is first made to assess the seriousness of a crime in general terms; then he is led to realise his own part in a comparable misdeed. Vincentio tackles both Claudio and the opportunist liar and slanderer Lucio in this way.

Some cases are sufficiently answered if the offender is made to assume responsibility for his actions. The irresponsible Claudio must marry Juliet, and Angelo Mariana whom he has deserted and then slept with in his greedy lust.

The duke then proceeds to condemn Angelo to death for his crimes against Claudio and Isabella. He is persuaded to reverse his judgement, however, by the intercession of the two women most concerned. Once Mariana is married she pleads for her sorry figure of a husband. Isabella is equally forgiving once Angelo has lost his power; after all, Claudio really was guilty of that for which he was condemned, while she herself was never successfully seduced.

Such magnanimity seems perhaps at odds with the tough treatment which traitors and other offenders receive from Henry the Fifth. The difference is both understandable and logical, however. The English king commands a large independent army which has the power to cause disaster if allowed to revert to the kind of behaviour typical of the civil wars. In Vienna Angelo is the only person with power, and his power rests on delegation of authority from someone else and disappears the moment that authorisation is withdrawn. The only power he may have left is in relation to Mariana, but she has voluntarily entered into the scheme of testing him and receives her due by at last being married.

The offences dealt with in
Measure for Measure are sexual, and sexual desire and transgressions are not crimes in the ordinary sense. Both Angelo and Isabella are too young and puritanical. Claudio in prison and the forgiving Mariana are portrayed favourably in contrast to the doctrinaire attitudes of the two former. Angelo when found out declares that he is prepared to die. Isabella would die for her brother but would not yield her body up to shame even to save him from execution. She is unmoved by Claudio's entreaties — it would lose her her soul and his: “More than our brother is our chastity.” In fact Isabella considers fornication like Angelo does and is as unyielding as he.

But the wages of sexual sin are not death, but marriage! The duke's verdict is that Angelo is to marry Mariana, and he does not wish Isabella to enter the convent but offers her his own hand in marriage.

The revenge indicated in the title of the play is therefore moderate in proportion. It is also carefully adjusted to two main categories of crimes. The play discusses first those cases in which the criminal has gained ascendancy over others. There it is enough to remove his power. The rest are injustices that take place between independent individuals, and here it suffices to have the culprits instructed by letting everything be revealed, and then having them fall in line with the institutions of society.

The dramatist and God

The duke's judgement coincides in fact with the forgiving mildness which Isabella expects from divine providence. Except for clear exposure he forgives all transgressions of the past, so that life can start again.

The attitude of the duke and Mariana toward crime and punishment is considerably more advanced than that of the others. The duke's other opinions belong to a clearly Stoic philosophy. The world is ephemeral and life unsatisfactory. People tire of what they have and desire all they do not have. The majority are self-centred and without consideration for the totality. Such phenomena as fornication and brothels will always be with us, people being what they are. Individuals who exercise power have greater difficulties than those who do not because the citizens are slanderous and unreliable.

Life being imperfect means that we will find lasting peace only in death. The duke has stopped pursuing worldly temptations. He cares for his fellow beings and wants to spread happiness, but more than anything he seeks to solve the riddles of our human nature and understand the forces that drive us. He is personally reticent and makes no exhibition of himself to his subjects.

Still, even the duke is fallible. He overestimates the possibility of changing people's behaviour through “correction and instruction” and in the face of human nature he has of course no final remedy for the problems so amply illustrated at the beginning of the play.

An analogy can easily be found between the duke's view of life and Shakespeare's works. Both are related to the efforts of great thinkers to analyse the world and to the preachings of religious renewers about the basics of existence. All emphasise the overriding importance of certain values, these being selected in accordance with their proponents' most comprehensive understanding. Illustrative examples are shown when a line of action is brought forward to the consequences it must inevitably have because of the participants' inherent nature. In the face of conflict between individuals or groups, the philosopher, the dramatist, and God take more general and elevated standpoints. While the consequences of our actions are shown to the full with no arbitrary limitation, all three are magnanimous in their final judgement:

We fail because of our limited insight and experience, which make us what we are. Our limitations are revealed through the consequences of our actions, and this revelation is our major punishment. All of us should abstain from indignation against others because we all transgress, each in his way.

The title of
Measure for Measure has two layers in its interpretation. The biblical “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” expresses a principle of justice to which the characters are not always equally alert; though, as we have seen, the conclusion does not emphasise a questionable ideal of simple retaliation. The title can, however, also point to a step-by-step progression in the reckoning, with a gradual disclosure of the results of what we do. The tolerance of our judges is a counterweight to the calamities that occur when our bigotry gets the upper hand, as with Angelo.

No matter how the title is understood, the play portrays the world from the point of view of an individual in possession of power. The rulers of society can arrange matters so that they are informed of everything that happens and have full control of the consequences.