Monday, November 25, 2013

Quick Thoughts: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Disclaimer: This is my first entry into the “Quick Thoughts” catalogue. As the name implies, these entries are not intended to be comprehensive, far from it in fact. I envision “Quick Thoughts” as an opportunity to propose questions and concerns about some of the reading I do. I may develop brief interpretations, but they will be brief. In addition to creating new, original content for this blog, I want “Quick Thoughts” to be something I can return to (and hopefully expound upon) if the opportunity presents itself.   

I’m certain at some point during my undergraduate studies, whether in a Shakespeare specific course (“Shakespeare: The Late Plays”) or something tangentially related (an independent study of some strip), I read Measure for Measure. Yet, as I sorted through my book shelves this weekend it occurred to me that I remembered little, if anything about the play. I remembered the play’s emphasis on chastity, but of course, that theme is not exclusive to Measure for Measure. Chastity (or more broadly, sexual restraint) is a central plot point for many of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies” such as Much Ado About Nothing and several tragedies such as Hamlet and Othello. But after reading the play again for the first time in several years I gravitated toward the play’s questions regarding judgement, hypocrisy, and power structures. In addition, I was equally intrigued (and troubled) by the genuine dearth of female agency throughout the play (in contrast to similar problems comedies such as Much Ado and As You Like It).   

Shakespeare’s central preoccupation—or plot point—is the correcting of one act of hypocrisy, namely Angelo’s willingness to punish Claudio for a similar crime (non-marital sex). Even though the crimes, if we can call them that, appear similar, they clearly are not. Admittedly, I scoff at the idea that Angelo is simply a hypocrite, because his crimes are far worse. Unlike Claudio, Angelo coerces Isabella into not only having non-marital sex, but compromising the vows she is prepared to take when we are first introduced to her. In addition, Angelo uses his newly-minted power and long-standing reputation as a means of enforcing this coercion. In Act 2 Angelo argues: 
Who will believe thee, Isabel?  
My unsoiled name, th’ austereness of my life 
My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state,  
Will so your accusation overweigh  
That you shall stifle in your own report  
And smell of calumny. (2.4.153-158) 

At this juncture, it’s a little reductive to argue that Shakespeare is critiquing power structures and the way in which those structures encourage gross misconduct and abuses of power.  Most, if not all, of his plays address this point to varying degrees. Angelo’s willingness, however, to coerce Isabella, I argue, is less a critique of Angelo himself, but a scathing critique of the individual who establishes his power and authority, Vincentio the Duke. The Duke unapologetically asserts that he has: 

…on Angelo imposed the office,
Who may, in th’ ambush of my name, strike home
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do it slander. (1.3.40-43).  

The Duke’s scapegoating of Angelo is, as he argues, an attempt to reintroduce order and social stability to Vienna. Earlier in Act 1 the Duke confesses:

We have strict statues and most biting laws, 
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. (1.3.19-23)  

But unlike Prospero, for example, the Duke provides little explanation for this apparent “slip.” As I read the play I looked intently for an explanation, but regrettably, no explanation appears (if I missed it, please let me know). The lack of justification, while seemingly irrelevant to play’s overarching ideology message regarding judgement and hypocrisy, is rather unsettling. Unlike Prospero who has little fear (at least at the beginning of the play) of appearing tyrannical, the Duke clearly does:

Sith ’twas my fault to give the people scope, 
‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do. (1.3.35-36).  

Therefore, we are left to conclude that the Duke’s cockamamy plan, which functions to make Angelo and others “better” than they were while also reintroducing order and civility to Vienna, is disingenuous due to its political (and later romantic) expediency. Clearly, the Duke isn’t as dastardly a character as Claudius from Hamlet—nor would I argue as much. Unlike Hamlet, however, the Duke is served by rather than condemned by his play’s plot, which is something to think about.      

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