Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!


Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.


I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.


The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .


The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.


These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

13 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

  1. I haven’t read the play in some time, but am I misremembering Lucio in chains at the end for no other sin than criticizing the Duke’s irresponsibility? I have always admired in this play (and in Lear) a return to stability and status quo that suggests there might be a few problems with the resident power structure–or even that it is the primary problem. It’s so rare in Shakespeare, aside from some flashes in the other problem comedies.

  2. Nice — as I was reading I was thinking: “I’m going to compare him to Edgar.” And then you did.

    I like: “First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge….”

    And especially: ” He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing” – which is a deeply Wildean truth. (Not Bourbon, but wry.)

    And I think you’re right that the comedic resolution is explicitly unacceptable. I also think he’s toyed with that a lot, earlier. E.g. in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since “the issue there create” / Sure will not be “fortunate.” Hypolita is going to give birth to Hypolitus (named after her since “she, being mortal, of that boy [will] die,” with we know what awful consequences. I think we should realize that this is the real life version of the fate of the changling boy whose outcome Oberon (more or less the same character as Duke Vincenzio) engineers.

  3. DE: It’s better than that. Since Lucio is pretty much a rake, Lucio does slander the Duke to his face when he’s in disguise, but after threatening to execute him, the Duke merely forces him to marry the unseen whore Kate Keepdown, with whom Lucio’s had a bastard child. Lucio is not happy about this. Lucio seems to be the best candidate for the Duke’s double, i.e., a person disconnected from responsibility and in love with the sound of his own voice, but devoid of the Duke’s power and scheming.

    B: It’s interesting that a lot of people historically seem to have found the end unacceptable but could not separate the Duke’s views from what they presumed to be Shakespeare’s–as though preserving Shakespeare’s moral and religious center was more important than having him write exclusively good plays. I never thought about Hypolitus before (and I guess most people don’t! It’s very offscreen!), but that seems to reinforce my sense that M4M is sort of a penance for the all-too-easily-ignored consequences in the earlier comedies (which I really don’t care for). It’s his tribute to Euripides!

    The comedic resolution seemed, in fact, similar to that of Huck Finn, which I wrote about recently. Something that the audience can laugh at, but which makes them bad people if they laugh at it.

    Now how about Barnardine? Shakespeare’s most Russian character?

  4. I expected you to follow your Thersites essay with a look at his Don Rickles role in “Troilus & Cressida”. But as messed-up plays go, “Measure for Measure” is better — I enjoy how forthrightly it expresses its moral incoherence. Although I doubt Shakespeare would’ve minded concocting some speech that would make the Duke a little more bearable, he clearly didn’t mind going with what he had.

    That said, I’m much fonder of the unproblematic comedies than you are. Yes, plot manipulation by an off-stage author (the Yahweh of the Gospels) and plot manipulation by an on-stage character (the Yahweh of Job) raise very different narrative issues, but I wouldn’t place much ethical weight on those differences. There’s a long tradition of villainous author-stand-ins (Wilde’s Wildean seducers, the Hammett-like psycho of The Dain Curse, criminal masterminds in general) and they feel hackish next to the criminal masterminds who stay hidden in the bunker of the title page.

    Where “Measure for Measure” fails is in trying to make Iago the good guy. Given the politics of Shakespeare’s time, such manipulation would only be acceptable from someone endowed with rightful authority — otherwise, MACHIAVELLI OH NO! — thus raising all the usual problems of monotheism. “The Tempest” handled this problem more smoothly with a “rightful authority” who’d been unrightfully usurped, but the best solution was that of Beaumarchais, who motivated acceptable manipulation by allowing the possibility of unrightful authority.

  5. Oh, and apologies if I’ve made this recommendation before, but if you’re in the market for sick, sick, sick Elizajaco theater, you could do worse than John Marston’s evil plays for an all-child cast.

  6. I just read The Dain Curse two weeks ago, and the mastermind writer-villain is a huge part of what makes that novel less successful than Hammett’s best. The world is unhelpfully shrunk when so many seemingly disparate events can be traced to a private individual’s psychopathology. When the psychopath has infinite power, however, as in Measure for Measure (or, say, Paradise Lost), there is far less distortion to the artwork because the psychopathology is woven into the fabric of the world as an elemental fact rather than the author’s bauble to inelegantly escape the garbled plot he has made.

  7. But surely “Measure for Measure” is distorted as all get-out. It’s just that to certain tastes the distortion’s so great as to become successful expressionism.

    To take a less extreme Shakespearean example, Prince Hal is far more powerful than the friends he plans to betray. To modern audiences, his deceit seems almost as undermotivated and distasteful as Iago’s. In Shakespeare’s time, though, the only concern seems to have been the good name of the Oldcastle family.

  8. And I have yet to meet a reader who thought Paradise Lost achieved its stated purpose. A good comparison there might be “The Merchant of Venice,” whose later interpreters strive to put Shakespeare in Shylock’s party.

    (Now I’m curious as to whether the Jim Crow Agrarians ever tried to rehabilitate Iago as tragic hero of The Birth of a Republic. They were probably too chickenshit, though.)

    (And now I’m bogarting the thread. Sorry!)

  9. Ray, it’s obvious you’re absolutely correct that Measure for Measure is distorted in terms of how a “well-made” play’s construction. But very few dramas, I would submit, fulfill generic conventions to a T and at the same time reach their artistic potential. Shakespeare’s fifth act restorations of order drive me crazy. They are conventionally correct, but in many cases (though not all) they violate the world that he has created to that point. Measure for Measure, imperfect and perverse though it may be, stays truer to itself. The conclusion feels insane, but the world of the play to that point has been insane.

    To be clear about Paradise Lost, I wasn’t talking about Satan as the organizing psychopathology but about God, the Father. In the opening lines, when Satan and the other fallen are lying on the floor of Hell, Milton makes clear that only the will of God allows any of them to stand. The same happens for the rest of the poem, in which everything happens because the Father wants it to happen. That includes the malevolent, destructive behavior of Satan, who does what he does only on the sufferance of God. There is even the strange M4M-reminiscent scene at court in which the Father sighs that unless someone, He has no idea who, just no idea who, but unless someone were to agree to commit upon himself a massive sacrifice, Adam and Eve and humanity are doomed. After a silence, the Son–another form of the Father–speaks up and announces that He will go down and make this sacrifice. I’m in full agreement that the poem fails in its announced aim, but isn’t that precisely because it puts before our eyes that we are controlled by an experimenting maniac? The poet that undertakes to justify the ways of Boehner to man will have an uphill road, too.

    (Sorry, too, to jack the thread, but nobody here but us chickens.)

  10. Supposing you define a particular genre-spanning subclass of Sick Literature, where one character assumes an authorial relation toward the others and engineers a horrible happy ending – (The Clerk’s Tale; end of Huck Finn; half of Henry James) – then I’d say the ethical content comes through loud and clear. If I understand what Ray said above, it’s not that Shakespeare is doubling back and recanting _As You Like It_ as unethical; it’s that the author-character relation is a simply ghastly model for relations between living people in our temporal world. I wish someone would explain this to Martha Nussbaum.

    Now if the fellow playing the author happens to be the head of state, that might be different; God’s representative on earth does get more latitude. (Along those lines, I wouldn’t put _Paradise Lost_ in quite this category of Sick Literature, since the God character really _is_ the author of all, and I think that leads to a different class of problem.) Like David says, to redeem _Measure for Measure_ you have to get comfortable with the Duke as the agent of divine will. I picture Shakespeare making his grimmest Henry James smile and daring you to do it.

  11. Oops, I’ve fallen behind in the discussion!

    I think that if it were just the Duke that were the problem, M4M would be less internally coherent. But the expressionism emerges very organically because the remaining characters are mostly repellent. (Hence the need for the more godly critics to insist that everyone in the play is a sinner and is redeemed. Well, half of that is true.) Lucio appears at first to be a happy charming scoundrel, but after Kate Keepdown is brought up, it turns out that he’s actually a major-league prick *by the standards of the play.* Claudio leaping at the chance to live also just looks *bad*.

    The issue of context and societal standards raises all sorts of knotty hermeneutic issues that make it very hard to pin down how a character should be taken ethically, with allowances made for cultural standards of the time and blah blah. But M4M is pretty clear about undermining its own stated standards, and it makes for a more satisfying result for me, one that can generalize more easily to the present-day. Maybe this is what DE means by M4M “staying true to itself.” (In the same sense that Kleist’s work or many of the sonnets–hello #20!–stay true to themselves.)

    (The Russians seem to be extremely good at this. Part 2 of Gogol’s Dead Souls isn’t particularly interesting or effective, but it certainly leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. The very end of Part 1, the bizarre “uplifting” troika passage, is probably sufficiently “sick” for most people’s purposes. Dostoevsky and Lermontov as well, I think.)

    And there are enough little complications like that–in Lucio, Barnardine, Claudio, Isabella, and probably others–to keep things up in the air. I focused on the Duke because this would have gotten way too long otherwise, but there are other various moral stances posed by them, and they don’t exactly provide much of an alternative to the Duke’s stance.

    The quality of “sickness,” in my vague conception, doesn’t necessarily require a happy ending, but it does require some sense of the unacceptability of the rules as laid out. When done archly, this is a disaster (see Sondheim’s Into the Woods); I think it requires that there be at least some commitment to the impossible values even as it is recognized that they are impossible…hence the sickness, in the sense of illness. _As You Like It_ ignores the impossibility/implausibility, and so is healthy. I may also consider it fatuous and frivolous, but then, so would the author of M4M, no?

    Had the Duke been inserted into the world of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play couldn’t quite have survived, I think. Maybe not an ethical difference, but a substantive one. And Merchant of Venice…yeah, I don’t see too much complication there, aside from Shakespeare doing his usual inappropriate soliloquy trick in a few places.

    ps–Ray, didn’t Fish think Paradise Lost achieved its stated purpose? Admittedly, I’d say that reinforces your point. Fish, I got your surprise sin right here.

  12. I like Paul’s insertion of James into the conversation. Late James is “sick” much more than something like Paradise Lost, whose author finds nothing unacceptable about the rules, monstrous though they may be. There may be no ethical difference between the Duke/Fanny Assingham and the orchestrations of an unproblematic comedy, but I agree with Waggish that there are substantive ones. There is a kind of real-world physics in Measure for Measure in that the Duke pursues his manipulations, but the weight of his absolute power is necessary at play’s end to keep everyone where he put them. He’s walking around with his omelette made of Chinese newspapers and melted GI Joes, and only because his word means life and death does everyone pretend both that it tastes delicious and that the kitchen is not covered in broken eggs. In a similarly fully-thought-out way, James’s manipulators succeed in their aim in the middle or sometimes even first third of the novel, and the rest of the text follows the slow violence of the unnatural collisions they have effected. To make the fulfillment of the conspiracy the beginning and not the end of the story feels exactly right to me. Updike said that real life is anticlimactic, but that is because Updike didn’t know how to tell the truth. I don’t see that same respect for consequences in the unproblematic comedies, where people are hurled together by the force of coincidence and expected to stay there mainly because the curtain is coming down and what else are they going to do. I think the are lesser works for it. You can call plotting by happenstance frivolous, and it is–but, because if so rarely follows through on its own logic, I think it’s greater sin is either dishonesty or laziness. Maybe that is an ethical difference after all.

  13. The Duke functions as an extension of the author / director. He is exempt from the moral physics that affect the rest of the characters because he is not a character. If the play is read in this light it makes sense. Shakespeare created an onstage proxy to push the drama. Whether this was just slightly lazy writing or a brilliant predictor of postmodernism is anybody’s guess. I suspect Shakespeare was working with a deadline and thus created this awkward device. More importantly, the above article is fantastic. Lucid, funny, brilliant writing. Thanks!

Leave a Reply