Sh, Earl, Jesuit


Oxquarry Books


Acknowledgments Introduction








Bibliography  Index   


John Klause



Measure for Measure




If All’s Well that Ends Well transforms in some way the story of Venus and Adonis into the quest of Helena for Bertram, that play’s “twin” (as Dover Wilson called it),[1] Measure for Measure, re-creates Lucrece. Angelo is a new Tarquin, a would-be rapist in whom lust is inspired by the special mystery that a woman’s virtue gives to her body (Luc 8-9; MM 2.2.161-86). Isabella, a “saint” like her “holy-thoughted” Roman predecessor who is also called a “saint” (Luc, 384, 85; MM 1.4.34, 2.2.180), holds her chastity more important than her own or her brother’s life--and sees no way to absolve her soul from guilt were her body to be violated (Luc, 687, 1056-57; MM 2.4.100-104, 185; 3.1.133-39). In Lucrece the saint is raped, a fate which in Measure for Measure the saint avoids; but the heroines of poem and play, each in her own way, confuse rather than clarify moral issues in their adherence to absolute principle: neither the martyrdom that Lucrece endures nor the one that Isabella imagines for herself can be admired and revered without question. As the “greater labor” that Shakespeare had promised to Southampton in the dedication to Venus and Adonis, Lucrece rises well beyond personal drama into the realm of religion and politics. Measure for Measure is a greater labor than All’s Well in just the same sense, following its sibling as Lucrece succeeded Venus, dedicated to Southampton, but silently.[2]

This claim would seem to be in conflict with the view common among critics that Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure as a compliment to King James, whose writings (in particular, the political treatise Basilikon Doron) are said to inform the play, and whose character resembled in some ways Duke Vincentio’s. This “King James Version of Measure for Measure” has often been challenged, sometimes tellingly,[3] but never with sufficient force to erase all suspicions that the King’s playwright might have wished his new patron to take special interest in a work that James eventually would (and did) see. Shakespeare may or may not have planned with the narrowest of intents to “flatter” the King, or with the largest philosophical purpose to offer him “a sustained meditation on . . . the political moment of [his] accession [and] the Reformation’s aftermath.”[4] Whatever his other intentions, it is likely that Shakespeare attempted in the play something modest but not unimportant. He resumed issues from Lucrece that had been of great moment to Southampton and dramatized them in a new era presided over by King James, who may not have had the real power, as did the Duke in the play, nor the absolute will to turn tragedy into comedy, but whose peaceable temper seemed to promise, as expressed hyperbolically in Sonnet 107, “olives of endless age.”

No one desired peace more than the Jacobean Catholics who had in the early years of the new King’s reign looked to him with the fondest hope for religious toleration. On April 16, 1603, three weeks after Elizabeth’s death, the Jesuit Henry Garnet wrote to Robert Persons, “there has happened a great alteration. . . . Great fears were: but all are turned into greatest security: and a golden time we have of unexpected freedom abroad. . . . Great hope [there] is of toleration: and so general consent of all Catholics in the [King’s] proclaiming [that] it seemeth God will work much. All sorts of religions live in hope and suspense; yet the Catholics have great cause to hope for great respect, in that the nobility all almost labour for it and have promise thereof from his majesty.”[5] The group of “nobility” mentioned by Garnet may have included Southampton--although, given the earl’s past history, whatever “labor” he expended would have been discreet. It was at about this time that Southampton declared himself more loyal to “king” than to “theologians”; yet he would continue for many years to protect, as best he could, his Catholic relatives and friends from the depredations of the law and administrative will. His name was in a report, drawn up by Robert Spiller, an associate of Garnet, that identified Catholics or Catholic-sympathizers who were at the English court or who otherwise enjoyed the favor of James in the spring of 1603. Spiller says of Southampton that “he used to be devoted to the Catholic faith.” Though he now “makes a public profession of heresy,” there is an “opening to reach him” through his Catholic mother.[6] This report was given to Don Juan de Tassis, who headed an embassy sent by Spain to England with the purpose of exploring the prospects for a general peace between the two countries, and of discussing relief for English Catholics.

 James had provided grounds for Catholics’ optimism by his words and actions over a number of years. Son of a Catholic “martyr” but educated as a Protestant, when King of Scotland he had intrigued with Catholic peers in his struggles against Presbyterian ministers, adopted some Catholic favorites, courted English Catholics for help in achieving the English throne, negotiated with Pope Clement VIII for support as Elizabeth’s successor, and married a wife, Anne of Denmark, who became a convert to Catholicism in 1600. On the day of Elizabeth’s death he had promised a correspondent in England that he would not persecute “any catholics . . . that will be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law,” and that he would as well “advance any of them that by good service worthily deserve it.” He told Robert Cecil that he did not wish Catholics to “multiply,” but neither would he have on his conscience “the blood of any man . . . for diversity in religion.” He was reported to have said to an embassy that “he recognized the Roman Church as the mother Church . . . and . . . would gladly be reunited with the Roman Church and would take three steps in that direction if only the Roman Church would take one.” The constable of Castile, returning to the Continent in November, 1604, after concluding for Spain a peace treaty with James, wrote to Philip that in England the number of executions had lessened, fines were being left uncollected, Catholics were admitted to the Privy Council. James’s conciliatory measures proceeded for a while in spite of the Bye Plot of 1603, in which several Catholic priests and laymen had plotted to seize the King and compel him to grant Catholics toleration.[7]

By 1605, however, James had bitterly disappointed Catholic expectations.[8] He had become alarmed by a new and conspicuous enthusiasm, even “triumphalism,” in the recusant community. Protestants were complaining that he had treated Papists more leniently than Puritans. Parliament--despite the solitary protest in the House of Lords by Southampton’s cousin, the second viscount Montagu--passed new statutes against “Jesuits, Seminary Priests, and Recusants,” and James accepted the legislation. Existing fines were more rigorously collected and harsh new financial penalties were promulgated. In February, 1605, James voiced to his Council his “utter detestation” of the “superstitious religion” of the Papists. A new and vigorous regime of enforcement was initiated, and over fifty-five hundred recusants were convicted of breaches of the law. A new atmosphere of despair developed in Catholic England, of which the most extreme symptom would be the Gunpowder Plot of the fifth of November.[9]

Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure before James’s thoughts on toleration had hardened. Since it was not usual for his company to produce a play exclusively or even primarily for performance at court (the plays chosen for presentation before the Queen and King seem to have been taken from proven successes on the popular stage),[10] Shakespeare must have considered Measure for Measure a work of general interest; but this does not mean that he would not have thought of it also as a bait with which to catch a conscience, even (as the players in Hamlet proved possible) the conscience of a king, and especially the conscience of a friend newly favored by a king. Shakespeare went to great lengths to transform Promos and Cassandra, George Whetstone’s broadly and rationally ethical play, into a religious and religiously topical drama, and in a way that his larger audience, as well as the King and Southampton, might find relevant to current political conditions.[11]

Whetstone’s secular Julio (ruled by the King of Hungary and Bohemia) becomes in Shakespeare Catholic Vienna, though with features of Protestant London; the lay Cassandra is turned into a novice of the Poor Clares, and a mostly absent King becomes Duke Vincentio, ever present and plotting, assuming (with the help of vowed religious men) the offices of a friar. In Measure for Measure there is mention of religious "controversy" about "grace" and of the less august subjects of grace before meals and eating “mutton on Fridays”; allusion to theological subjects like predestination, the atonement, eucharistic "manducation"; and a large infusion of biblical references and themes, underscored by the play’s title--the only one that Shakespeare ever took from the Bible.[12] In none of the sources of Shakespeare’s play does anyone shudder about an afterlife of torment as Claudio does, nor proclaim a readiness for a martyr’s death as does Isabella.

Critical opinion about the purpose of religion in Measure for Measure has varied, ranging from G. Wilson Knight’s view that “the atmosphere of Christianity” pervades the play, whose theme is “the Gospel ethic,” to Clifford Leech’s sense that “Christian colouring” is “not more than intermittent in the play,” that it “wells up from Shakespeare’s unconscious inheritance, and . . . does not determine the play’s characteristic effect.”[13] Interpreters who have concentrated on themes of sex and power have not needed religion to make their points;[14] and those who have insisted on the centrality of religion in the work have been able to identify the drama’s informing “faith” either as a generic Christianity or a partisan Protestantism.[15] The openness of Measure for Measure to such a plurality of approaches, some of them contrarious, is what makes the play “Shakespearean.” Whatever the explanatory power of these interpretations, however, another approach should join or compete with them. It would be just as much of a critical truancy to ignore the significance of Catholicism in Vienna as it would be to neglect it in Hamlet’s Elsinore or Lucrece’s Rome.

That Measure for Measure would have made a narrowly doctrinaire Catholic uncomfortable is demonstrated by the Jesuit censor William Sankey’s surgical removal of the play, at some time in the 1640’s, from the Second Folio owned by the English College in Valladolid.[16] Perhaps Duke Vincentio, assuming a friar’s garb and pretending to hear confessions, appeared to the Catholic clerical eye too much like James, who believed that a king, “not mere laicus,” combined in himself offices of both lay ruler and priest.[17] Perhaps “Friar Lodowick” construed too loosely the laws of betrothal and marriage, or lied too cavalierly, or suggested too strongly that an end could justify a means. Perhaps Isabella’s silence at the Duke’s proposal of marriage seemed to imply her consent to it in a way that would place marriage above vowed celibacy in a hierarchy of religious value. Yet English lay Catholics would have had reasons to see in the play signs of sympathy with their plight. Like Claudio, they were threatened by an outrageous penal code that Puritans (kin to the “precise” Angelo) were concerned to see enforced. As in Vincentio’s Vienna, so in James’s England, sin (fornication in one case, certain acts of “misbelief” in the other) was punishable as a capital crime. Some Jacobean Catholics petitioned the new King not to abolish the penal legislation but to let it lie dormant, as Vincentio had let the laws sleep in his dukedom;[18] if they could see in the Duke’s generous distribution of pardons at the play’s end a symbolic will to mercy, they would not, like critics of later times, have been scandalized. Isabella declared to her brother Claudio that death was preferable to a single mortal sin, even when one’s mind did not sanction the body’s malfeasance; the more heroic-minded of the Catholic clergy told their flock much the same thing about bringing their bodies to a heretical church, placing many conscientious souls in the dilemma of Lucrece.[19] That such a dilemma could be resolved short of tragedy was for English Isabellas a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Shakespeare had given Lucrece religious resonance by writing the poem in full consciousness of the thought of Robert Southwell. He fashioned Measure for Measure as an alternative to Lucrece by returning to Southwell for inspiration in re-creating a Catholic world that had once more to be explored and responded to. Shakespeare again recalled many particulars of the Jesuit’s Epistle of Comfort because, as it seems, he found none better suited to convey features of specific religious conflicts that the play was, in fantasy if in no other way, to settle.

The simplest of these details was a set of names.  It is a remarkable fact about the play that a majority of its characters’ names appear in an exact or approximate form in Southwell’s book. Shakespeare found in the Epistle suggestions for twelve of the eighteen named dramatis personae:







Vincentius (77r)




angelus, Angell (76v)




Luc. (72r, marg.)




Thomas (88r)




Peter (85r)




of Arrius (77r




froth (9r)




Pompeius (68r)


Abhorson, an executioner


abhorr (62v); sonnes (63v); executioners (68v)




Bernardin (88r)




Francis [i.e., Francisco Xavier] (88r)


Mistress Overdone (a.k.a. Madame Mitigation)


mitigate (70v) (cf. 47v-48v, concerning a “Strumpett” who is, like Mistress O., concerned for the welfare of a child).






With the exception of “froth,” the proper names and other words occur within a small number of pages, all of which are quite near those which, as we shall presently see, the playwright reviewed or remembered as he constructed his third act. Shakespeare renamed all of Whetstone’s characters who made their way into Measure for Measure; most of the new names, it is clear, he took conveniently from Southwell.[20] He appropriated from the Jesuit a good deal more.

Near the center of the play, when Isabella visits her condemned brother in prison to tell him that she has failed to win a lightening of his sentence, Claudio greets her in hope of better news: “Now, sister, what’s the comfort?” She answers: “As all comforts are: most good, most good indeed.” The “remedy” for his predicament that Isabella first announces deeply disappoints her brother, for it is nothing less than death. Lord Angelo insists that the prisoner must die for his crime of fornication. Claudio might live, but only if Isabella were to surrender her virginity to the Deputy; and she is certain that the shame of such a bargain made on his behalf would “fetter” Claudio’s mind forever. Though he be given the freedom of “all the world’s vastidity,” he would live in “perpetual durance, a restraint” (3.1.54-67). There can be little doubt that this dialogue derives from the extended title at the beginning of Southwell’s book: “An Epistle Of Comfort To The Reverende Priestes, And To The Honorable, Worshipfull, and other of the layesorte, restrayned in Durance for the Catholike Fayth” (EC, 3r). Not only do the nun’s words repeat Southwell’s, they are addressed like the priest’s to a prisoner who is being asked to suffer his affliction patiently in the name of principle. The words are not uncommon, but they immediately follow and precede much more extensive echoes of Southwell’s Epistle.

Before Isabella offered her cold comfort, the disguised Duke had attempted to wean Claudio away from a fond attachment to life. His grim words have been called “essentially materialist and pagan”; but as Daryll Gless has pointed out, they are not only close to language of the stoically inspired “ars moriendi” tradition of Christian contemplation, they serve (since Claudio is not really going to be executed) a temporary rhetorical purpose that can hardly be said to derive from a pagan conception of life.[21] Indeed, as the following comparison illustrates, the Duke’s sermon to Claudio relies heavily on a section of Southwell’s Epistle of Comfort, a late sixteenth-century version of the “art of dying”:


            Measure  3.1.6-41                                                      EC
             Reason thus with life:                             reason it . . . our whole lyfe is so   
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing                          necessarilye joyned with sorowes . . . , it
That none but fools would keep. A breath             might rather seeme a madnesse to live
     thou art,                                                          43r, 68v:
Servile to all the skyey influences,                       servilitye; the heavens by concourse of
                                                                           planettes, and divers pernicious
                                                                           influences, have caused no small miserye
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,       Woe unto me that my inhabitance is
Hourly afflict. Merely, thou art death's fool;         howerlye . . . afflicted
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun,           why shuneth he the waye . . . ? Wh[i]ther  
And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not       goe you, you perishe and you perceyve it
     noble,                                                             not. . . . miserable are . . . those jorneyes
                                                                           which you runne  
                                                                           60r, 46v, 52r:
For all th’ accommodations that thou bear'st        all . . . the [in]commodityes . . . befell unto
Are nurs’d by baseness. Thou’rt by no means     man by reason of one . . .  sinne;
      valiant,                                                          nourishmentes of sinne; base kynde of lyfe
                                                                          60r, 56v, 52r:                                               
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork           softe and easye; tender; worme
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,            49v, 50v:
And that thou oft provok’st; yet grossly fear'st    provocations . . . groslye
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not
For thou exists on many a thousand grains            42r:
That issue out of dust.                                        that issued out of
                                    Happy thou art not,       41v, 53r:                                         
For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get,    If we have anything that delighteth us . . .
And what thou hast, forget'st.                             If we have anything that annoyeth us [there
                                                                          is no pleasure in either case]; your meaning
                                                                          is to be happye, but miserable are they
                                    Thou art not certain,       53v-54r:
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,        the contentments of this lyfe . . . are . . .
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;      alwayes uncertayne. Like the stedines of
                                                                         the moone, that is ever in changinge
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,      lay them on one sinners backe
                                                                          49v, 53r, 55v:
Thou bear'st thy heavy riches but a journey,       heavye; miserable are . . . those jorneyes
                                                                          which you run; riches
                                                                          50v, 59v :
And death unloads thee. Friend hast
thou none
,                                                          death . . . loaden; losse of . . . frindes

                                                                          47v :
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,      bowels
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,                  59v:                 
Do curse the gout, sapego, and the rheum,        Consider the disease[s] of the eyes, eares,
For ending thee no sooner.                                   mouth, throate, and everye parcell of mans
                        Thou hast nor youth nor age,       Our infancye is but a dreame, our youth but
But as it were an after-dinner's sleep,                   a madnesse . . . , our age a sicknesse
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms              59v:
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,      palsey
                                                                           57v, 56v, 59v:
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor          heate; affection; lymmes
     beauty,                                                           55v, 53v:
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this    riches; pleasant
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life          beareth . . . name
Lie hid moe thousand deaths; yet death
we fear,                                                              a thousand . . . calamityes

That makes these odds all even.

Claudio seems to accept the “friar’s” counsel, thanking him for it, and, apparently understanding the Christian sub-text that underlies the “pagan” advice, professes a new resolution to “find life” in “seeking death” (3.1.41-43); but then during his conversation with his sister, which reveals that his death is not absolutely inevitable, he plunges into desperate imaginings:


                        Death is a fearful thing.
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
. . . to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling--’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.


On pages of his Epistle that for the most part closely succeed those that contribute to the Duke’s homily, Southwell describes agonies suffered by those who experience God’s harsh justice both in this life and in the life to come. Claudio, though combining in frightened uncertainty pagan and Christian images of an afterlife,[22] shares the imagination and language of the Jesuit, who writes of the “fea[r]efull” deaths allowed by providence, of punitive “colde” and “rotting,” of “senselesse persons,” and of life as “motion.” God’s wrath on earth, says Southwell, is shown in “fluddes of fire.” (EC, 68r, 65v, 69v, 67v). The  bodies of the damned are described not only as burning, but as “freesing in snow,” (cf. “ice”), buffeted in their “prison” house by “wyndes, stormes, and tempestes,” assaulted by “horrible roaring” and “howling”; their “imagination” is terrified unceasingly, as they are surrounded by every “lothsome” thing, removed from the “worldly goods” that they had loved too much. Such are the punishments that God will “lay . . . on one sinners backe.”  “What torments in this lyfe,” Southwell asks, anticipating the frightened young man in his conclusion, “come neere to any of these miseries . . . [?]” (72v-76r; 58v). The hellish landscape of both writers is, of course, much like Virgil’s and Dante’s, and in some ways proverbial; but the specific language common to both descriptions is warrant enough to link them in a causal way with the allusion to the Epistle’s title and with the Duke’s inventory of life’s vanities as evidence of Southwell’s influence on Measure for Measure.

In writing Lucrece, Shakespeare made considerable use of Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares and Saint Peters Compaint.[23] His recollection of these works of Southwell is evident as well in the “new” Lucrece of 1604. As quite often, some memories are clear but haphazard.[24] In one instance, however, Shakespeare fused images from the meditation and the poem to create one of his play’s most powerful expressions of passion, Isabella’s protest that she would rather have her body whipped and flayed in a bloody but beautiful martyrdom than to surrender it to shameful sin:

Th’ impression of keen whips I’ld wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’ld yield
My body up to shame.

Isabella had precedent for her fervid sentiments in Marie Magdalen’s expression of extreme devotion to the crucified Christ, who was “stripped at the crosse,” whose sufferings she would “crave” to share as a high “felicitye.”  “If I might be chooser of my owne death,” Marie declared, “how willingly would I runne to that execution. . . . my body [should be] wounded with his whips. . . . the ground where I stand shall be my death-bed” (MMFT 24r; 16r-v, 17v). Shakespeare’s nun would wear her wounds as jewels, the “rubies” worn by the young martyrs whom St. Peter envied (SPC, 563).[25]

For Shakespeare, then, Southwell persists as the sponsor of the heroic Catholicism to which Isabella subscribes at the beginning of Measure for Measure and which Lucrece had represented in her narrative. A long time has passed since the poem was written for Southampton, however; and the play is meant to answer new circumstances. The earl has made decisions that have released him from threats of persecution for conscience. He is farther than ever from martyrdom. Yet he still has reason to sympathize with those who have not found a way to be both secure and, according to their lights, righteous; and, if actions he would take in years to come are an indication of present sentiment, he feels some obligation to take advantage of his own newly acquired favor to help ease for others the burden of oppressions that he has escaped.

Lucrece was the story of a solitary victim, whose adherence to absolute principle in confronting irresistible will destroyed her. The poet burrowed into the private consciousness of villain and heroine and dwelt mostly there, discovering tragic threats that could be publicly responded to in the poem only after tragedy had occurred. Tragic action carried the postscript of political rebellion. Measure for Measure takes a similar conflict out of a private house and casts it into a public world where absolutes of will and principle are diminished by shifts and compromises, and tragedy is forestalled by revolution--that is, by a revolutionary ethic.

With Southampton’s own pardon still fresh, Shakespeare presents to him another play about forgiveness, but this one about the value of mercy as a civic as well as a personal virtue. Shakespeare does so in a way that has disappointed a host of commentators who have seen, with Algernon Charles Swinburne, an “evasion” of the play’s true tragic end by “ingenious” (or capricious) manipulation, and has scandalized generations of audiences and readers for whom Coleridge spoke when he declared that the ending “baffles the strong indignant claim of justice.”[26] Is Measure for Measure so clearly a work of esthetic and moral irresponsibility?

That the play’s two halves are somehow untrue to one another was influentially argued by E. M. W. Tillyard, who saw a great falling-off in the middle of Act 3. The critic observed that after the tense and eloquent exchanges between Angelo and Isabella, and between Isabella and Claudio, the disguised Duke interposes himself and assumes direct control of the action; poetry turns into prose, passionate conflict into intrigue, independent and rounded characters into pawns of a domineering manipulator--all so that “good may come out of evil” most improbably. Especially remarkable in the critic’s view is the change in Isabella, who would die, and have her brother die, rather than lose the virginal integrity of her body and soul, but who after the “friar”’s brief persuasions tamely acquiesces (through lies and other ethically questionable stratagems, it might be added) in the at best morally ambiguous sexual adventure of Angelo and Mariana.[27]

Some “justicers” among commentators have also found an inconsistency of theme. While acknowledging, for example, that the play’s vision is informed by the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, Graham Bradshaw sees confusion rather than paradox in the fact. The Lucan version of Christ’s words seems especially relevant to Shakespeare’s drama: “Be ye . . . merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven . . . with what measure ye mete, with the same shall men mete to you again” (Luke 6:36-38). Yet, Bradshaw contends, the Sermon on the Mount was concerned only with private morality, with the “inner states” of individuals, and left alone questions of retributive justice in a commonwealth. This point was indeed made by Renaissance theologians, who taught that Christ spoke to the “private” man in commanding abstention from judgment, not to “rulers” for whom it is “lawful . . . to judge and condemn.”[28] Thus as a spokesman for “earthly justice,” Angelo is right to insist about mercy,

I show it most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss’d offense would after gall. . . .

The kindly counselor Escalus seems to admit as much: “Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; / Pardon is still the nurse of second woe” (2.1.283-84). And at a moment of heightened fury, in response to her brother’s request that she lose her honor to save his life, the same Isabella who had preached to Angelo the virtues of Christian forgiveness comes near the principles of the stern, though now fallen, deputy:

Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd,
‘Tis best that thou diest quickly.

That the Duke confesses to a culpable leniency in enforcing the “strict statues and most biting laws” of his realm (1.3.19-31) and yet finally offers pardons all around at the end of play, even granting clemency to a confessed and unrepentant murderer, makes the ruler guilty, in Bradshaw’s eyes, of an “unprincipled and compromised benevolence.”[29] What then are we to think of Isabella’s plea, when she first tries to rescue Claudio, that the Christian law of loving forgiveness should direct public policy?

 Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once,
 And He that might the vantage best have took
 Found out the remedy. How would you be
 If He, which is the top of judgment, should
 But judge you as you are? O, think on that,
 And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
 Like man new made.


We may consider this ethic to be at the heart of the play, and yet find that it fails to supersede “secular ethical systems,” remaining only in irresolvable conflict with them.[30]

To ironists like Bradshaw and Harriet Hawkins, this conceptual stalemate is one of the play’s glories, reflecting Shakespeare’s honest helplessness before some of the deep mysteries of life.[31] One may sense, however, that the clash of irreconcilable opposites is achieved by an interpretation that sets against each other principles too abstract and pure. Is it really “justice” that vies with “mercy” in Measure for Measure? Or is the combat, though no less momentous, much less grand? Ernst Honigmann once lectured on the purposefully introduced impurities in this play, especially the deliberate mingling of seemingly incompatible genres.[32] The notion may be elaborated to suggest that in a sense the play is about impurities of various kinds, sexual, of course, but also theological and political, and even in the broadest sense “conceptual.” Justice and mercy are too clean to reside as competitive virtues in Shakespeare’s Vienna.

This does not mean, as is often assumed, that Vincentio’s city is hopelessly corrupt. Like most cities of its time and others, it harbors fornicators, bawds and pimps, a corrupt official who would rape and kill if allowed to, a drunken murderer, a dead pirate, and a crowd of other miscellaneous malefactors (mentioned in 3.3.1-19) who all seem to be in prison, which houses an executioner. It is hardly as “rotten” as Elsinore, which is far tidier. Its convent, though it might evoke spiritual revulsion in Protestants, is, as far as we can learn from the text, a place for stern Catholic idealists, “preserved souls . . . , / Fasting maids, whose minds are dedicate / To nothing temporal” (2.2.153-55)--quite unlike the lecherous lady in the anti-monastic satire with which we know Shakespeare was familiar, The Troublesome Raigne of King John. There are no bloody intrigues in Vienna’s palace--until the Duke gives it into the charge of a would-be reformer. The city’s bad name comes mostly from the Duke himself, who confesses to a friar that he has for too long been lax in enforcing its laws, encouraging disrespect for them (1.3.19-31), and who later, in the guise of Friar Lodowick, angrily declares that in Vienna he has seen

                        corruption boil and bubble,
Till it o’errun the stew; laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanc’d, that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop,
As much in mock as mark.


These last words, spoken only a few minutes before the Duke blithely overpasses “the strong statutes” in what has been called an “orgy” of pardoning,[33] have led to much critical consternation. If the Duke believes that the condition of his society is desperate, how can he continue in the “unprincipled . . . benevolence” that seems to have made it so? The fact is, Vincentio can afford to be compassionate because affairs in Vienna are hardly as grim as he sometimes protests they are. He is not blind, but sometimes a liar.

 The Duke begins the play as an arch-deceiver. After extolling the political wisdom of Escalus, Vincentio announces that he will leave Vienna for a time, but, entirely contrary to a prepared audience’s expectations, will make his vice-gerent not the experienced counselor whose praises he has just sung, but the neophyte Angelo. The deputy will be given absolute authority: “Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart,” he is told. He shall “enforce or qualify the laws” as he shall see fit. (1.1.43-44, 65-66). That his transfer of power is no Lear-like irresponsibility on the part of the Duke is revealed only after we learn of Angelo’s preference for “mortality” over “mercy” in enforcing the long-slumbering penal law against fornication. Claudio is to be Angelo’s first victim--until we realize that the Duke has not left Vienna after all, but remains disguised as a friar, “to behold” Angelo’s “sway” (1.3.43), and far from allowing the “most biting” law to have its way, plans, immediately upon hearing of his death sentence (2.3), to intervene in the young man’s case. If the Duke had wanted a strict enforcement, surely he would have allowed Angelo to act without hindrance. Vincentio is not questioned by Friar Thomas about the purpose of this deception until the Duke insists that he be asked--in order to discourage false suspicions about the ruler’s potentially amorous intentions; and the answer given is that Vienna, too long used to indulgent rule, now needs the beneficial “tyranny” that Angelo is likely to bring to it, for which the Duke does not wish to be blamed (1.3.16-42). This would be a most remarkable admission were it true; but there are already hints that it is not to be taken seriously. The Duke says that there are “Moe reasons for this action.” We are later to discover that they have not to do with civic reform, but with the reformation of the reformer; and indeed, immediately after declaring that Angelo could be of use to him as an agent of rigor, Vincentio speaks derisively of Angelo the “precise,” who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows.” Already the Duke seems intent on testing his deputy rather than receiving a benefit from him: “hence we shall see / If power change purpose: what our seemers be” (1.3.53-54). Eventually, the experiment will be seen to have been conducted not for its own sake, but to change the person it was meant to try.

Why should the Duke dissemble about an issue so damaging to his reputation--especially since he shows himself highly sensitive to slander? The fact is, he lies to almost everyone in the play. Lying is his modus operandi, a way of keeping his true plans secret so as to give himself the greatest possible freedom of maneuver. Since Friar Thomas will hardly divulge what he has been told, the Duke may safely tell him whatever he wishes, even if, as the friar suspects, it does not make entire sense (1.3.31-34). Vincentio is primarily a comic character, and there is no need to inquire searchingly into motives in him that are not especially deep--though his prevaricating will turn out to be of considerable significance; but the playwright’s interests in the myth of Vienna’s need for the severest correction might be examined. Some believe that Shakespeare wishes to portray the Duke as hopelessly irresponsible, helplessly addicted to manipulation and finally incapable of the wise governance that would find a proper way for mercy to season justice. If one does not, however, judge the finale to be the whimsical performance of an irresponsible ruler, one can appreciate Shakespeare’s shrewdness as a dramatist in letting drop the faulty notion that aggressive mercy has been a bane to the commonwealth, only to demonstrate in the end that, as perilous a virtue as mercy is, it provides the only hope of authentic cure for at least some maladies before which compulsion is helpless.

It is not sufficiently appreciated that the fundamental conflict of principles in Measure for Measure is not between justice and mercy but between justice and the law. Angelo assumes that what is legal is just, and furthermore that strict enforcement of the law is the only true mercy. When he argues in this way with Isabella, he is utterly confident of his conclusions, and no one successfully challenges him on his own ground. Even if, Angelo declares, a magistrate should punish a violator of the law for a crime of which he himself is guilty, the law must be upheld in spite of the unworthiness of the one who administers it:

You may not so extenuate [an] offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.


In Angelo’s view, the law’s stern imperatives trump the Gospel ethic, which requires one to remove the beam from one’s own eye before pulling out the mote in another’s, and to be free from sin before casting the first stone (Matt. 7:5; Luke 6:42; John 8:7). The Duke’s thinking, on the other hand, is evangelical:


He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!

Is Angelo wiser than the Duke in refusing to mingle “public” and “private” morality? The deputy’s position makes clearer “sense”; yet the play will not allow such “sense” to go unchallenged. Angelo himself, in private, comes to doubt it (cf. 2.1.18-23 and 2.2.175-76). His sexual vice, mirroring Claudio’s even to the extent of revealing itself in the context of betrothals and dowries, is much more appalling than Claudio’s “sin” and “crime”; and one can imagine that few in an audience would feel that the law as a principle should be upheld in this case by one whose “cruel striking / Kills for faults of his own liking”--even if the law were just.

And who but the most radical of puritans would consider capital punishment for sexual misconduct just?[34] Confining ourselves to the world of the play, we must say that Claudio does not. He seems to cede to the earthly “demigod, Authority” the right to pay offenses as it pleases: “on whom it will, it will; / On whom it will not, so; yet still ’tis just” (1.2.120-23). Yet when he explains to Lucio that his own offense is not “murder” but “lechery” of a qualified sort, and that its capital penalty has not been executed in two decades, he loses faith in the legitimacy of the arbitrary sentence (1.2.165-71). Escalus does not believe in its justice either--not in his heart, although he comes to repeat ruefully Angelo’s maxim about the cruel kindness of exemplary punishment. The Duke, whatever he says, certainly does not, given all his efforts to undermine the law (which is never in fact referred to as of his own making). Isabella’s words of address to Angelo, though strategically rhetorical and incongruous with her initial sense that her brother’s crime should be remedied with marriage (1.4.49), probably express her true conviction, which is a divided one, at least intially:


There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war 'twixt will and will not.


Isabella thus joins Angelo on the side of the “saints,” who would control and punish sin with fierce temporal correction. By the end of the play, however, these believers in the state’s right to regulate sin with secular “justice” have demonstrated, and perhaps some have come to believe, that this is a most dangerous prerogative.

In the process of this change, catastrophe is averted, to the distress of those like Swinburne who feel cheated when the colossal conflict of passionate characters brought together under the auspices of law is forestalled, and the pure flame of tragedy is smothered by the ashes of deceit, manipulation, and whimsically wielded power. The law has no grandeur. The potentially tragic characters never truly possess the independence to destroy themselves and each other. The Duke intends always to lurk in the shadows to save his stratagem from dire consequences. Shakespeare did not suddenly realize all of this in the middle of the play and resort to “prose” and the prosaic in a desperate volte-face to rescue his plot from an untoward conclusion. He intended from the first to create a comedy that was necessarily impure as an alternative to a tragedy that would have been unnecessary and ignominious.

What are the play’s impurities, and what does the impure, “tragi-comic” play have to say about them? There are the sins of the sinners, of course. Claudio’s sin, which he both acknowledges as a “thirsty evil” (1.2.30) and tries honestly to extenuate (“upon a true contract / I got possession of Julietta’s bed” [1.2.145-46]), is only impurely wicked, mingled as it is with love. Mistress Overdone’s faults are tempered by her sympathy for Claudio and for the illegitimate child whom she has informally adopted but about whom no one else seems concerned. Lucio’s irresponsibilities and treacheries stop short of reaching Claudio, to whom he remains a loyal friend. Pompey’s comic insouciance is both alarming and refreshing. Then there are the sins of the saints. Angelo’s perfectionism, no less real for its harshness, coexists with lust and self-interested cruelty.  Isabella’s allegiance to the claims of the soul over the importunities of the body does not prevent her from forgetting that charity is the greatest virtue; and she seems unaware that if caritas does not require her to submit to rape to save her brother’s life, it would never allow such an outburst as comes from her after Claudio reveals a weakness in wanting to live at cost to her integrity:


                        Take my defiance!
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.


The Duke’s character is perplexing rather than notably complex. His interior life is mostly hidden, his motives often open to different constructions, so that he can be perceived as one chooses to perceive him: as a figure to be respected or despised. Critics have judged him and actors have played him as a benevolent or a cruel ruler, a shrewd moral pedagogue or an unfeeling, even tyrannical manipulator, a public figure rightly or wrongly sensitive about his reputation, an authority committed to a wise or a foolish inconsistency of principle and action. If he is the play’s hero, he is the kind whose “nature is subdu’d  / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand” (Sonnet 111), his imperfect moral expedients answering to the recalcitrance of an “impure” world that cannot be redeemed without discomfiting compromises.

Such ambiguities are approached in the play through the conceptual “impurity” of moral reasoning that seems to cheat its way to conclusions. Lucio remarks upon this process when he speaks of the “sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the Ten Commandements, but scrap’d one out of the table” (1.2.7-9). If a pirate will have stealing allowed, and a soldier, killing, Duke Vincentio, for the best of reasons, will find a way to countenance lying and other kinds of deception.

These concessions to the imperfect are made through a casuistry that is both ideational (in the arguments presented by various characters) and dramatic (since the play itself applies abstract ethical principles to individual cases). Wylie Sypher once described Measure for Measure as an extended exercise in casuistry, which he defined, with Pascalian fervor and some imprecision, as the “adjustment of legalism to ultimate indeterminations.” He declared that Shakespeare’s Viennese characters “play with evil. What looks like forgiveness is not; what looks like sin is not; what looks like lechery is not; what looks like brutality is not; what looks like chicanery is not; and so on--an infinite regression, an illusion of settlement and resolution and comedy. And all the while there are really lust and grossness, and, possibly, even love. All is in equipoise, yet all is in question and unsettlement.” Such are the procedures of “mannerist” art. In this scheme, the Duke is, “like the Jesuit, a humane casuist,” taking “Jesuitical pains to justify Mariana’s lying with Angelo in the place of Isabella.” Isabella, however, ultimately learns to offer mercy “beyond the measures of casuistry,” leaving behind the Duke’s tactics of “evasion” to experience in herself a “regeneration.”[35] Plausible in some ways, Sypher’s thesis is ultimately too simple.

Caricatures of casuistry, tenacious in their survival since Pascal’s Lettres provinciales brilliantly established them, assume that casuistical thinking inevitably involves an irresponsible laxity, making licit through a tangle of sophistries even the most outrageous ethical lapses.[36] In fact, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century casuists were often as rigorous as they were permissive--as can be seen not only in the handbooks of case divinity written by conservative authors like Dominico Soto and Juan Azor, but in the more flexible guides that were provided for the English Mission by Catholic theologians on the Continent late in Elizabeth’s reign.[37] The most pernicious casuistical principle, in English Protestant eyes, was that which allowed “equivocation” (the use of ambiguous terms in a deceptive response to questioning by authorities) and “mental reservation” (holding back in one’s mind an addition to a response given to an authority, the “silent part” having the effect of altering the meaning of the spoken part--e.g., “I am no priest [of Apollo]”).

The problem of equivocation (not always distinguished from that of mental reservation) is noted both in Hamlet and in Macbeth. It had become notorious in England at the trial of Robert Southwell, who professed the legitimacy of the equivocator’s art. Responding to the charge that he found it lawful to commit perjury, Southwell posed a case in which the French invaded England and the Queen went into hiding in a private house. Would “Mr. Attorney,” who knew of her whereabouts, if put on oath to say whether she was there or not, be obliged in law and conscience to say “yes”? Or to refrain from answering at all where silence implied a “yes”? Or “would he say: ‘She is not there,’ meaning ‘I intend not to tell you’?”[38]  Casuists refused to consider such an evasion of the truth a lie, but only because they accepted the absolutely rigorous principle, enunciated by St. Augustine in contradiction of earlier theological opinion, that lying is always sinful. Homicide might be justifiable (in self-defense); theft might be justifiable (if one were starving and stole food); but never a lie, which is always forbidden. “Since by lying eternal life is lost,” declared Augustine--speaking in fact about a case like the one offered by Southwell, “never for any man’s temporal life must a lie be told.”[39] So brutal a premise led inevitably, it would seem, to the slippery ratiocination, practiced by many casuists in good faith, that would produce “intuitively acceptable” ethical conclusions.[40]

Augustine, as we have seen, severely criticized Lucretia. He would have condemned the many lies uttered by Duke Vincentio, as well as those which the Duke persuaded Isabella and Mariana to tell. Indeed, even the most accommodating casuist would have found it difficult to condone the falsehoods which, though not absolutely necessary to the play’s “happy ending,” formed part of the process that led to it. A theologian might have considered venial such lies as the Duke’s claim to have confessed Angelo and learned of his innocent intentions towards Isabella, or his announcement to Isabella that her brother was dead, or Isabella’s pretense that she would yield to Angelo’s sexual demands, or that she had in fact yielded her “chaste body” to him;[41] but these were downright untruths rather than potentially innocent equivocations or mental restrictions. And in a play filled with moral arguments presented by characters who profess a scrupulous concern for moral and legal justice, there is an apparently casual approval not only of what Touchstone called “the Lie Circumstantial” but of “the Lie Direct” (AYL 5.4.81-82). To say, as Duke Vincentio does, that “the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof” is to affirm (against the strenuous and strained arguments of all casuists) that ends justify means (3.1.257-58). Shakespeare dares his audience to deny the principle, and many readers and playgoers have been happy to do so. The lies and stratagems of Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing (4.1.200-243) are licensed by “the spirit of comedy”; but in Measure for Measure the more somber moral atmosphere may seem to discourage such generosity--even more than in All’s Well that Ends Well. Edgar’s well-intentioned lies to Gloucester at Dover are almost always considered humane and therefore acceptable (though Edgar himself has scruples about deceiving his father [Lear 4.6.32-80, 5.3.193]). Ariel’s deception of Ferdinand, reinforcing the young man’s belief that his father has drowned, is hardly ever a matter of moral concern (Tempest 1.2.397-405).  The Duke’s crooked ways, however, are often seen as pernicious, his “incessant lying” a mark of “self indulgence” and cruelty, as he treats “his subjects as puppets for the fun of making them twitch”;[42] he may even be condemned for “creating the wrongs he later rights.”[43]

Yet Shakespeare also challenges the audience of his play to accept, at least in some measure, the value of the salutary lie. As the history of the play’s reception demonstrates, he did not create in the Duke a character who must inevitably be condemned for his chicanery.[44] Vincentio’s motives may be seen as redemptive. If he cannot eliminate vice from his society root and branch, he can, in ways that only a governor in a comedy would attempt, save some few individuals from the worst part of themselves. To do so, however, he cannot, as Shakespeare created him, play the role of a savior radically and consistently pure. There are no certain grounds for judging him in the grip of a cruel passion for “mystification,”[45] or (in his treatment of the slanderous Lucio) of a petulance too proud to be forgiven; but the Duke’s good purposes must be considered alongside the crooked and often hurtful means he employs to achieve them.

Knowing full well that Claudio will not be executed, he assures Juliet that her beloved will die, confirms to Claudio himself as much, and later tells Isabella that her brother has in fact been killed. These deceptions, rather than indicating the Duke’s “supreme indifference to human feelings,”[46] may be in his mind either punitive or therapeutic, or both. They may, from a different perspective, be part of a large comic intrigue that need not be examined too closely for evidence of the main participant’s inhumanity. Yet the play’s emphasis on the universality of imperfection (“all the souls that were were forfeit once” [2.2.273]) should make an audience aware that the Duke is not beyond culpability in his maneuvers.  When, for example, his plan goes awry and Angelo, despite his promise not to do so, commands the beheading of Claudio, the friar/Duke hastily (and “unrealistically”) counters with an order for the swift execution of the confessed and unrepentant murderer Barnardine--too hastily in light of what Vincentio would learn later about the state of this prisoner’s soul. The “accident that heaven provides” in the convenient death of Ragozine (4.3.77), whose corpse provides the head that can be shown to Angelo, not only saves a flawed strategy, it saves the Duke and Barnardine from the consequences of unfortunate  authoritarian rashness.

Is the Duke’s casuistry, riddled with dishonesty or deficient logic, also unfortunate? Its purpose is to justify the bed-trick, in which Mariana takes Isabella’s place in a sexual encounter with Angelo. The Duke tells the disconsolate lover in her moated grange about the man with whom she will soon have carnal relations:                


            gentle daughter, fear you not at all.
He is your husband upon a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ’tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit.


The “title” of Mariana to Angelo is not as strong as Helena’s to Bertram in All’s Well.  Mariana and Angelo are not married (they “should” have been [3.1.213] because they were “affianc’d by oath” to wed [214] but never did so--as the Duke acknowledges when at the end of the play he sends them off to “marry” [5.1.371]). Yet the “Friar,” in justifying his encouragement of Mariana to visit Angelo’s bed, tells her that the deputy is her “husband on a pre-contract.” So tutored, Mariana finally propounds a paradox: “I ne’er was married . . .  [yet] I have known my husband” (5.1.184-6).

This conundrum, according to which Mariana is “neither maid, widow, nor wife,”[47] cannot be resolved, as is often thought, by an appeal to the Elizabethan laws governing “spousals.” Although in the play the statutes of Vienna, which prescribed capital punishment for fornication, clearly differ from those of Shakespeare’s England, which did not, the matrimonial agreements at issue in Measure for Measure resemble those that the play’s first audiences would have recognized. This resemblance does not, however, provide legal or moral justification of the Duke’s advice to Mariana. If the contract between Angelo and Mariana were sponsalia per verba de futuro, by which they had promised to wed in the future if certain conditions (like the provision of a dowry) were met, their relationship would not have been a valid marriage at the time when Vincentio assured Mariana that Angelo was her “husband.” In the absence of a wedding, only carnal knowledge betwixt the Parties betrothed” could turn spousals de futuro into “Matrimony.”[48] As the contemporary legal expert Henry Swinburne noted, the sexual infidelity of one of the parties to this kind of contract committed “Fornication,” not adultery.[49] Under the laws of a de futuro betrothal, then, Angelo would not have been Mariana’s “husband” (except in a non-technical sense) before their intercourse; nor would their sexual union make them husband and wife, since the copula carnalis that could create “matrimony” was held to do so by the at least implied intention of the couple to be as “Man and Wife” through their action--an intention that Angelo certainly did not have.[50] A spousal per verba de praesenti, in which a couple without church wedding declared themselves to be henceforth husband and wife, though it was illicit, did make the couple “very Man and Wife before God.”[51] Such an agreement between Angelo and Mariana would explain why the Duke and Mariana use the word “husband,” but not (since such a union was indissoluble except on the grounds of adultery) why Angelo was able to escape so easily from his bond,[52] nor why (in the case of a “present” marriage) the language of futurity is used to describe the contract (“She should this Angelo have married; was affianc’d to her by oath” [3.1.213-14]; “her promised proportions / Came short of composition” [5.1.220]).[53] In fact, neither kind of spousal could warrant the Duke’s assurance to Mariana that she would not “sin” in her sexual encounter with Angelo, for official teaching held that physical union before a church wedding was sinful, “no matter what type of betrothal contract was involved,” no matter how “valid” an irregular “marriage” was or would become at the time of the union.[54] Furthermore, a conscientious casuist would have recognized that, just as Bertram sinned by intending to commit fornication with Diana though his wife had taken Diana’s place (All’s Well 3.7.47, 5.3.289), Angelo sinned in the belief that he had intercourse with Isabella, and Mariana herself would have sinned in abetting the immoral act of her beloved, had the implications of her act not been hidden from her by her “ghostly father” [5.1.126]).

Duke Vincentio, then, is apparently no better a casuist than Angelo, who self-interestedly tries to pervert the ethical principle that “a compelled sin is no sin” and suggests that there might be “a charity in sin” to save a life (2.4.57-58, 64-65); or no better than Claudio, who desperately reasons: “What sin you do to save a brother’s life, / Nature dispenses with the deed so far, / That it becomes a virtue” (3.1.134-35). Or rather, the Duke knows better than he says. Having in his reasoning with Isabella and Mariana removed the bed-trick from the taint of sin, he privately acknowledges Angelo’s sin in the transaction: “This is [Claudio’s] pardon, purchas’d by such sin / For which the pardoner himself is in” (4.2.108-109). If Isabella and Mariana can plead ignorance in this matter, the Duke, who arranged to have the “sin” committed, cannot offer the same plea. He might in this respect seem to justify the reproaches of the critics who despise him.

And yet a larger view of the play would not allow his condemnation to be final. Sypher thought it to Isabella’s credit that she offered Angelo forgiveness “beyond the measures of casuistry.” In fact, she did not. Whatever was in her heart (or had been in Angelo’s), she tried to argue on legal grounds that the deputy did not deserve punishment:


Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died;
For Angelo,
His act did not o’ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish’d by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts.


These arguments are not fatuous, though Isabella’s recourse to the ultra-legalism that one cannot be unjust in observing the law is surely desperate.[55] Her attempt to take advantage of a bad law and casuistical logic to save her enemy is prompted by a charity (more for Mariana’s sake than Angelo’s) that is no less real for being distasteful to her, or for relying on technicalities. Isabella’s plea for Angelo also allows us to believe that she has learned enough to forgive her brother if she thought he were alive. But the Duke rejects her reasonings: “Your suit’s unprofitable . . .” (5.1.455).  It is he who, recognizing that mercy cannot be wholly constrained by reason, offers it on other grounds. Like a casuist, he understands that an “instinctive” morality may require doing violence to conventional moral truisms; unlike a casuist, he does not trouble himself to find a way to keep that violence unblamable.

 Something in Measure for Measure may lead an audience to believe that there can indeed be “charity in sin”--that a sinner’s benign purpose, while not turning sin into virtue, invites the sin’s forgiveness. One can call this incitement “the Gospel ethic,” which is more than vaguely recalled in the play’s verbal and mimetic allusions; but it may not be thus sanctifiable. One can also, however, search the implications of Isabella’s utterly remarkable response to Angelo’s puritanical pronouncement that begetting children unlawfully is as immoral as murder:


Ang. Ha? fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stol’n
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image
In stamps that are forbid. . . .
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  
Isab. ’Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth.


Isabella, who is often accused of a simplistic moral absolutism, not only defies this caricature by suggesting that heaven’s simple commandments (“Thou shalt not steal”) are rightly qualified on earth by a casuistry that considers circumstance, degrees of culpability, and quality of intention; she implies, no doubt unwittingly, that earth may have an ethic not as pure as heaven’s, which humans must follow because they are capable of no better in a world as imperfect as they. Even one who observes this earthly code may need heaven’s forgiveness. Isabella herself is willing to assume the guilt that charity would lay on her when she begs pardon for her brother: “That I do beg his life, if it be sin, / Heaven let me bear it!” (2.4.69-70). When she learns, however, that she may win mercy for Claudio only through what she believes to be the soul-damning act of fornication, she looks to heaven’s unmitigated law as reason for refusal. She is uncomfortable with the lies that she has been directed to tell, relying for their innocence on clerical authority: “To speak so indirectly I am loath. . . . / Yet I am advis’d to do it . . . to veil full purpose” (4.6.1-4).

             The Duke never reveals such a divided mind. Forgetful of his own conscience, he is focused on the results that he wishes to achieve. These are not the utopian extirpation of every vice, but, in the first place, the adherence of an individual to his obligations. Angelo’s commitments to Mariana were moral rather than legal, and therefore enforceable not by straightforward coercion but by pressures, operating in this case through deceit, that would remake Angelo’s character.[56] In the course of this enterprise, which the Duke oversees in disguise to prevent his game’s getting out of hand, he must take on other projects that his devices spawn or uncover: the education and rescue of Claudio and Juliet and the blessing of their mutually assumed obligations; the preservation of Isabella’s chastity and her education in charity; the curbing of Lucio’s licentiousness and holding him to his responsibilities to Kate Keepdown and their child; and the rehabilitation of Barnardine. Unlike the King of France in All’s Well, who never leaves his exalted position, never lies or stealthily manipulates--because his willingness to assert his supreme power on every occasion places him above the need for cunning--Duke Vincentio allows his subjects to fall so that they may more securely stand, joins them in the places of their failure, participates in their world of guilt, and therefore himself, like them, needs to be forgiven. He never reflects on this necessity, and there is no one in the play to pardon him. Many in an audience, however, will appreciate the comic side of the Duke’s character, which inspires tolerance of faults. They will perceive that his sins are less grievous than those of the characters who receive his mercy, and will understand the play’s reliance on the biblical notion that the impetus to forgive should come not only from the nobility of the act itself (as Prospero would claim [Tempest 5.1.27-28]), but from the need for mercy in both forgiven and forgiver. And they may then wish to absolve a Duke who is prodigal with schemes and pardons, though he never “repents” or asks for absolution.

 But is Duke Vincentio still to be judged harshly for dereliction of his public duty? Is he guilty of the “foolish pity” that is shown by the magistrate who, as William Perkins described him, is “so carried away, that [he] would have nothing but mercy, mercy, and would . . . have the extremity of the law executed on no man . . . , [so as] to abolish laws, and consequently pull down authority. . . . ”?[57] We should recall that the Duke is not promiscuously forgiving. Vienna has a prison that houses a variety of criminals-- including, by the end of the play, Mistress Overdone and Pompey, neither of whom is pardoned, the incarceration of whom, as a means of protecting society from corruptive influence, one might be sentimentally sad to see. In a more egalitarian society than Shakespeare’s, this pair’s exclusion from a mercy that is enjoyed mostly by wrongdoers of higher caste will seem regrettable. All who are pardoned by the Duke, however, have been severely chastened. Most of them seem ready to profit from the mercy accorded them; if one is unsure about Barnardine’s future, his chance for recovery is preferable to his certain perdition; and Lucio, if incorrigible, is at least under a regime of correction that may benefit his wife and child. Thus, to an extent, mercy is rational. Furthermore, it should be noted (for it is not usually understood) that in his concern for the welfare of individuals, the Duke acts mercifully in such a way as to promote a kind of justice: not by enforcing an unjust law in the name of “good order”; not by commanding the punishment of one whose “act did not o’ertake his bad intent”; but by saving persons who had made pledges or oaths that were morally if not legally binding and ensuring that those promises were kept. He saves, then, by enforcing a discipline in the process of granting mercy; and thus his statement that “lechery” must be cured by “severity” (3.1.97-99) is not incompatible with leniency. His actions deeply disappoint those who wish to see marriage at the end of a comedy as always a fulfillment of desire and reward for the exertions of lovers; but “love” in Measure for Measure is not as important as more abstract themes--obligation, constraint, guilt, reformation, and forgiveness--that the playwright impressively embodies. At certain moments, early in the play especially, Shakespeare endows Angelo, Claudio, and Isabella with a rich psychological life; near the end, he makes psychology yield to a modified social realism, albeit within the limits of comic conventions that rely on the suspension of considerable disbelief. Victoria Hayne has proposed that the social practices concerning “marriage formation” that are mirrored in the play would have been perceived by Shakespeare’s audience as less than entirely fanciful. “Most members of the audience would recognize that the Duke’s orders complete what the couples themselves began; that, Lucio’s protests notwithstanding, no one is forced to marry as punishment for crime; that the resolutions, however extraordinary the Duke’s methods of achieving them, were the resolutions communities would have accepted and the ecclesiastical courts did require of similar relationships in the world outside the play.”[58] Of course, the Duke is no ecclesiastical court; he can manage his project as he will. But if, like the courts, he could enforce promises, neither he nor they could ensure mutuality after promise. The Duke cannot (as Helena in All’s Well seemed better able to do) create love where it does not exist, but only make it possible within the framework of commitments that by “oath” and “promise” had been freely made. He can perhaps make Angelo a better man, but can give him only the chance to become a happy one, in a world where happiness depends on but is not guaranteed by goodness. Thus the case of Barnardine comes to parallel those of the married couples: the best for him as for them is a matter of hope. Measure for Measure does not raise the high hopes inspired by conventional romantic comedies, nor even the more modest ones evoked by All’s Well; but it need not have encouraged any at all. And Shakespeare, who was quite willing to acknowledge on stage that love’s labors might be lost, could find more complex themes in love qualified by private and social obligation than in love allowed free ecstasy, and chose to offer in his drama the hope that is liable to suspicion and complaint.[59] In doing so, Shakespeare reprised the unsettling comic paradigm that he had established in All’s Well that Ends Well, one in which a devious matchmaker, by resorting to means for which she or he must be forgiven, establishes a union (or unions) of ambiguous “rightness,” to which an audience may assent partly because they can believe enough of “right” is as good as a feast, and alternative endings would seem heavier with “wrong.”

At the finale of Measure for Measure, most of the characters have at least their immediate futures clearly demarcated. The Duke and Isabella do not. Having claimed indifference to “the dribbling dart of love” (1.3.2), Vincentio, like Angelo, is hooked by the bait of Isabella’s “goodness” (3.1.181). After he observes both her otherworldly idealism and its fierce corollaries, sees them tempered by the authority of his feigned priesthood and his dubious but well-meaning casuistry, and, undisguised, receives from her a plea for the life of the man whom she has every reason to detest, he seeks her hand in marriage. The novice of Saint Clare’s order does not appear to understand the Duke’s first hint of an offer (“I am still / Attorneyed at your service,” he says after his unmasking [5.1.384-85]). His first overt proposal she seems to deflect (5.1.492-93); about his second she is silent, though a simple gesture could signal her consent (5.1.535-37). It would seem unlikely that a young woman of Isabella’s station could refuse such an offer from a duke. Yet it is curious that she is asked twice, neither time offering a verbal reply, and as the stage clears, the Duke’s words remain strongly conditional (“if you’ll a willing ear incline . . . ).” This is as it should be if Vincentio’s invitation is meant to contrast sharply with Angelo’s attempt at force. The emphasis is on Isabella’s freedom to choose, not on the outcome of her decision, which Shakespeare may have deliberately left unknown.

The question of liberty should return us to the personal and political dimensions of Measure for Measure. If one views the play from the perspective of Southampton, one cannot accept the notion that Shakespeare made Isabella a nun in Catholic Vienna merely for dramatic reasons.[60] She would most plausibly represent for the earl a type of English Catholic with whom he was intimately acquainted: one who resolutely believed  that the soul was mortally polluted if it yielded its body to what Southwell called the “aduoulterous” churches of heretics (EC, 209r); one who would exalt the heroic dimension of religious life and celebrate martyrdom, yet welcome casuistical expedients to evade the harshest laws when they required what intuitively seemed a moral outrage; one who might readily acquiesce to the teachings of a priest (the ultimate authority in the casuistical tradition) and deny complete allegiance to (or “marriage” to) a monarch. Southampton would also see in Duke Vincentio some of the features of James, a King “sensitive to calumny,” a hater of crowds, a secret spy on his subjects, a performer of theatrical pardons,[61] pardoner, indeed, of Henry Wriothesley. The earl would hear in the play an echo from the trial that put him at James’s mercy. Isabella’s argument that Angelo’s “act did not o’ertake his bad intent, / And must be buried but as an intent” was used by Southampton himself as part of his defense: “what was intended amongst all our conferences and consultations. . . ? many things were propounded but nothing performed. . . . how can this be made treason?”[62] Recollection of the trial could bring memories of the state’s claims that the Essex Rebellion had as one of its aims the toleration of “Catholic religion,”[63] and Attorney General Coke’s insinuation that Southampton was among the group of papists who hoped for it.[64]

A play thus full of reminiscences for the earl, both in its allusion to Lucrece (with its Southwellian subtexts) and in its traversal of  “Catholic” issues as Southampton would be inclined to understand them, is not, for all its complexities, an exercise in neutrality. Measure for Measure stands for the enforcement of mutual obligations but against an unjust penal code that prescribes capital punishment for “sin” insufficiently distinguished from “crime.” The play recognizes sins on both sides of an ethical as well as a religious divide, portraying those of the “Puritan” Angelo, who abuses power, as worse than those of the “Catholic” Isabella, who suffers the abuse and is driven to duplicity--except when Isabella assumes power over her brother, and her attitude toward mercy comes to coincide with that of her “precise” antagonist. The conflict between Puritan and Catholic is not resolved until Angelo is made to leave Isabella to her own integrity, and Isabella, as part of her larger education in charity, shows it to her former persecutor. The play finds value in morally imperfect expedients that avert catastrophe, and even more value in a radical forgiveness that seems in some cases the only answer to ethical and political tragedy. It applauds a ruler who, at the risk of  appearing irresponsible, would forgive as much as he can, in the implied belief that the law was made for humanity, not humanity for the law, and (more radically) that a merely punitive “justice” may not be justice at all. It compliments a magistrate who though passionately concerned about disorder and corruption does not believe that punishment is the only way to counter them. It suggests the question, momentous in an age of religious strife, “If Barnardine is pardoned in the mere hope of his rehabilitation, what other capital felons (like Catholic priests and their lay abettors) might be shown at least as much mercy?” The Duke makes overtures to a nun of stringent Catholic ideals, but (no Angelo) shows himself wise not to insist that she abandon them.

In 1604, there is every reason to believe that Southampton would have understood and welcomed such a play and its silent address to him. The earl and his playwright shared, of course, the experience of Claudio: Elizabeth Vernon had been Southampton’s pregnant Juliet, as Anne Hathaway had been Shakespeare’s. But this was a minor coincidence. More important, if the evidence of this book can be credited, was a shared outlook on some matters of great consequence, perplexities of conscience such as in Measure for Measure were handled with both bravery and tact. Conscience by definition is meant to be “applied.” The conscientious eye of Shakespeare’s play was probably not meant to gaze back at itself “in maiden meditation, fancy free” (MND 2.1.164). It looked out to Southampton at a historical moment when tolerance, forgiveness, and a hatred of tragedy might be hoped for in a real prince, who, personal foibles notwithstanding, might be approached and guided in the practice of these virtues by a cautious new protegé--if not by a lowly playwright who could offer his own ideals only as fanatsies that strained to make contact with life as it is really was, and yet might achieve something more than “a trick of fame.”




To Chapter 6


  [1]. Quiller-Couch and Wilson, eds., All’s Well that Ends Well, 106.

  [2]. It is not simply the story of Lucrece that makes its way into Measure for Measure; the play reproduces much of the poem’s language, imagery, and rhetoric:


                    Lucrece                                                             Measure
8-9:                                                                1.4.58-62:
Happ’ly that name of  “chaste”                      unhapp’ly set one who never feels
This bateless edge on his keen appetite          The wanton stings and motions of the sense;
[compare Angelo’s attraction to Isabella’s       But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge

48:                                                                  5.1.117
O rash false heat, wrapp’d in repentant cold   Unfold the evil which is here wrapp’d up

58-61:                                                              2.4.79-80:
beauty . . . Their silver cheeks . . . their               these black masks
shield                                                              Proclaim an enshield beauty

440-2:                                                             2.4.20:
[The veins] must’ring to the quiet cabinet        Why does my blood thus muster to my heart
[of the heart]

506-7:                                                             3.1.91:
[Tarquin] like a falcon [to the] fowl                 [Angelo] as falcon [attacks] the fowl

512-20:                                                           2.4.96-97:
“Lucrece,” quoth he, “this night I must             You must lay down the treasures of your body
     either enjoy thee                                        To this supposed, or else to let [your brother] suffer
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  
[Or] thy surviving husband remain                 
The scornful mark of every open eye             

619-20:                                                          2.2.118-20:
Wilt thou be glass wherein it shall discern       Dresss’d in a little brief authority,
Authority for sin, warrant for blame,               Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
                                                                     (His glassy essence)
624-32:                                                          3.2.261-68:
Hast thou command? by him that gave it         He who the sword of heaven will bear
    thee,                                                         Should be as holy as severe;
From a pure heart command thy rebel will;    Pattern in himself to know,
Draw not thy sword to guard iniquity. . . .       Grace to stand, and virtue go;
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .           More nor less to others paying
When, pattern'd by thy fault, foul sin may      Than by self-offenses weighing.
    say,                                                           Shame to him whose cruel striking
He learn'd to sin                                             Kills for faults of his own liking!
With foul offenders thou perforce must bear,                        
When they in thee the like offences prove

807:                                                                 4.2.153-54:
character’d in my brow                                  There is written in your brow, Provost,
                                                                        honesty and constancy

855-64:                                                            3.1.27-38:
The aged man that coffers up his gold             Thou bear’st thy heavy riches but a journey,
Is plagu’d with cramps and gouts and fits          .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .                   .  .  . thine own bowels, which do call thee
Having no . . . pleasure of his gain                          sire,
.   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .                 The mere effusion of thy proper loins,           
And leaves it to be master'd by his young,        Do curse the gout, sapego, and the rheum
Who in their pride do presently abuse it                                  For ending thee no sooner. . . .
                                                                        .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
                                                                        . . . and when thou art old and rich,
                                                                        Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor
                                                                        To make thy riches pleasant

1073:                                                               5.1.117:
Nor fold my fault                                            Unfold the evil which is here wrapp’d up

1168-69:                                                          3.1.70-71:
His leaves will wither and his sap decay;                                             you consenting to't,
So must my soul, her bark being pill'd away   Would bark your honour from that trunk you

1240ff:                                                             2.4.127-30:
women [have] waxen minds                             Women? Help heaven! men their creation mar
And therefore . . . the impression of strange     In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times
     kinds                                                                    frail;
Is form’d in them by force, by fraud, or            For we are soft as our complexions are,
     skill . . .                                                       And credulous to false prints

[3]. See especially Richard Levin, “The King James Version of Measure for Measure.” Levin argues against the views of David L. Stevenson (The Achievement of Measure for Measure, 134-66), Josephine Waters Bennett (Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment, 78-104), and others.
[4]. Shuger, Political Theologies in Shakespeare’s England, 1.
[5]. Quoted in Caraman, Henry Garnet, 305.
[6]. “Solia ser bien aficionado a la fee Catholica, mas agora haze profession publica de ser erege, su madre es Catholica, y el medio por donde se abria de procurar caminar con el.” See Albert J. Loomie, ed. Spain and the Jacobean Catholics, 1.1-8.
[7]. See Antonia Fraser, King James, 60-6, 37; Lee, Great Britain’s Solomon: James VI and I in His Three Kingdoms, 99; Lockyer,  James VI and I, 124-25; Patterson, King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom, 53-54; McGrath, Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I, 364-65.
[8]. The king had also, nervously, and for some reason unknown, arrested Southampton for a day in June of 1604, then compensated the earl for the unwarranted incarceration. Southampton owed much to James, but formed part of a group of parliamentarians and others who, especially in the latter part of the reign, opposed the king on a number of important issues. See Akrigg, Southampton, 140-41; Cuddy, “The Conflicting Loyalties of a ‘vulger counselor.”
[9]. Lockyer, James VI and I, 126-27; Loomie, “Toleration and Diplomacy: The Religious Issue in Anglo-Spanish Relations, 1603-1605,” 31; McGrath, Puritans and Papists, 366-67.
[10]. See Gurr, The Shakespearian Playing Companies, 298.
[11]. The idea that Measure for Measure is concerned with issues of religious toleration is not novel. In the late Victorian era, Bowden and Simpson proposed that the “argument in ‘Measure for Measure’ is not for the repeal of the penal laws, but for allowing them to lie dormant. . . . Philosophically [the play] is the trial and condemnation of the penal code” (352-53). Almost a century later, Peter Thomson considered it obvious that “through Isabella, devout and politically disengaged Catholicism is commended. Through Angelo, the excesses of Puritanism are pilloried” (Shakespeare’s Professional Career, 164). Leah Marcus, in her “local” (and deliberately inconsistent) readings of the play, has found in it reasons both to feed English Protestant fears of Catholic persecution and to encourage “international” and “national accommodation with the ‘popish’ enemy” (Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents, 184-200.) More recently, James Ellison has set forth in some detail (in “Measure for Measure and the Execution of Catholics in 1604”) a historical context in which the play might be understood as a protest against the persecution of Catholics, lodged by a playwright who was a “tolerant Anglican” (59), a “pro-monarchial” celebrator of James’s “ecumenism” (86, 63), and at the same time a stern critic of Puritan as well as Catholic attitudes and practices. Ellison’s positioning of Shakespeare at the perfect center of the via media and his argument for the playwright’s “wholehearted agreement” with King James on the issue of toleration are not entirely persuasive. James was not (as English Catholics were to discover) as fully committed to ecumenism as the critic portrays him. The Duke in Measure for Measure is not the King himself, but a fictional character whom Shakespeare seemed to think James would have done well to study in both his virtues and his shortcomings.
[12]. Measure 1.2.14-26, 122-23; 2.2.72-75; 2.4.5 (see Hunter, “Six Notes on Measure for Measure,” 169-71; Matt. 7:1-2, Mark 4:24, Luke 6:36-38.)
[13]. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 75-76; Leech, “‘The Meaning’ of Measure for Measure,” 67.
[14]. For a survey of recent studies of sexuality in the play, as well as of new historicist readings, see Brian Vickers’ “General Editor’s Preface” to Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition, Measure for Measure, ed. Geckle, 19-22. See also Wheeler, ed., Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, for a representative collection of such studies.
[15]. Compare Knight’s “Christian” thesis with that of Darryl Gless, who, displaying the rigor and thoroughness of a Puritan divine, interprets Measure for Measure as a dramatic unity made to cohere through anti-Catholic polemic and advocacy of Reformed doctrine (Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent). Peter Lake, among others, sees in the play anti-Puritan polemic (“Ministers, Magistrates and the Production of ‘Order’ in Measure for Measure”). David Beauregard maintains that the play reverses anti-Catholic conventions and treats Catholicism sympathetically (“Shakespeare on Monastic Life: Nuns and Friars in Measure for Measure.”)
[16]. See Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, 291-92.
[17]. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, 291; Gless, Measure for Measure, 246.
[18]. Loomie, Toleration and Diplomacy, 14.
[19]. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises put before the exercitant “Three modes of humility.” In the first, which is “necessary for salvation,” one “would not give consideration to the thought of breaking any commandment, divine or human, that binds under pain of mortal sin, even though this offense would make [one] master of all creation or would preserve [one’s] life on earth.” In the second, one would not, “for the sake of all creation or for the purpose of saving [one’s] life, consider committing a single venial sin.” In the third (presupposing the first two) one would choose to suffer with Christ who suffered for mankind rather than live a simply blameless life (The Spiritual Exercises, 81-82). Isabella’s ideals seem less idiosyncratic when set against such a widely disseminated conception of the spiritual life. In contrast, Iago’s wife Emilia, unlike Desdemona, would “venture purgatory” for “the whole world” (Othello 4.3.77-79).
[20]. Kenneth Muir found only three of these names (Francisco, Vincentio, and Barnardino) in Erasmus’s colloquy Funus and thought that Shakespeare drew them from this source (The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays, 304-5n16).
[21]. See Lever, ed., Measure for Measure, lxxxvii; Gless, Measure for Measure, 240-45. It is not often noted that Claudio responds to the “pagan” sermon of the “friar” by speaking Christian-sounding words about the afterlife: “To sue to live, I find I seek to die, / And seeking death, find life” (3.1.42-43).
[22]. See Lever, ed., Measure for Measure, lxxxvii-viii n2.
[23]. See above, Chapter 2.
[24]. Compare, for example:
                          SPC                                                          Measure
          205-6:                                                               3.2.222:
          vertues quartane fever                                      there is so great a fever on goodness,
          311, 443, 257:                                                    3.2.108-10:                   
          Syrens . . . as fishes spawne their                     a sea-maid spawn’d him . . . he was
          frye . . . congeal’de to ice                                begot betwen two stock-fishes . . .
                                                                                  his urine is congeal’d ice
          558:                                                                  3.1.87-88:
          Life sav’d by sinne, base purchase                    Thou art too noble to conserve a life
                                                                                  In base appliances
          691:                                                                  4.1.13:
          Pleasd with displeasing lot                               My mirth is much displeas’d, but pleas’d                                                                                                                       my woe
                                  MMFT                                                            Measure
          25r:                                                                   4.3.146:
          command thy eies to forbeare                          Command these fretty waters from your
          teares                                                                   eyes
                                                                                                                                                                      36r                                                                   2.2.94-97:                                                         
          the nest where sinne was first hatched             like a prophet [sees] future evils . . .
          [is now the home of] Elias                                 .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .
                                                                                  hatch’d and born
          41v, 47v:                                                            2.4.63:                                                 
          O sweete sinne. . . . thy fault deserveth             a charity in sin
          favor, because thy charity is so great
          55v:                                                                   1.2.180-86:
          though they pleaded at the most rigorous           Implore her . . . that she make friends    
          bar, yet have they so perswading a silence        To the strict deputy. . . .
          . . . and soften the rigour of the severest             .    .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
          judge                                                               . . . in her youth
                                                                                  There is a . . . speechless dialect
                                                                                   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
                                                                                  And well she can persuade
          56r:                                                                   1.1.65:
          qualified his justice                                          qualify the laws
          56v:                                                                   2.2.122; 3.1.120-21:
          Heaven would weep . . . the Angels                  As make angels weep . . .
          still bathe themselves in the pure streams                                   the delighted spirit
                                                                                  To bathe in fiery floods
          57r:                                                                   4.3.109-10:
          thou didst onely deferre her consolation,              But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
          to increase it                                                     To make her heavenly comforts of despair
Compare also:
                                                                                                                                                                                              Southwell                                                            Measure
          “A Phansie . . . ,” 97-98:                                      2.2.37:           
          Yet hate I but the fault,                                      Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?
          And not the faulty one
          “Losse in delaies,” 26-29:                                     2.2.95-99:
          Breake ill egges ere they be hatched:                                                               future evils
          .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .                     Either new, or by remissness new-conceiv’d,
          In the rysing, stifle ill                                         And so in progress to be hatch’d and born,
                                                                                    Are now to have no successive degrees,
                                                                                    But ere they live, to end.
          “A holy Hymne,” 43:                                           2.4.4-5:                                              
          None that eateth him doth chew him                                         Heaven in my mouth
          [see Hunter, “Six Notes,” on the                           As if I did but only chew his name
          Eucharist and “manducation”]

[25]. Psychoanalytical critics, who often argue that Isabella is sexually repressed, point to her language in this passage as evidence for their conclusion. Richard Wheeler, for example, writes: “Like Angelo’s self-imposed chastity, Isabella’s desire to enter the convent perpetuates an infantile resolution of the oedipal situation. Isabella, about to join a religious sisterhood that institutionalizes the familial taboo on sexuality, would make a gift of her virginity, her sexual potentiality exalted and desexsualized as worship, to God. But everything desexualized for these characters at one level is resexualized at another. . . . Isabella’s repudiation of Angelo’s advances is . . . strangely, masochistically eroticized in a vivid fantasy that expresses her own tormented image of sexual contact: ‘were I under the terms of death’. . . .” (Shakespeare’s Development and the Problem Comedies, 112.) The fact that Isabella’s language is not idiosyncratic, rather derived from a public, “baroque,” and therefore political tradition on which Southwell relies, does not invalidate such psychoanalytical readings but suggests that there are other ways of understanding the young woman’s character. On the co-existence, in certain kinds of art, of psychological drama and theological exposition see Leo Steinberg, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.
[26]. Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare, 3rd ed; Coleridge, Literary Remains; in Geckle, ed., Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition, Measure for Measure, 195, 80.
[27]. Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, 123-29. The most ambitious attempt to read the play as a coherent whole, on the other hand, has been that of Darryl Gless, Measure for Measure, the Law, and the Convent.
[28]. Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s Scepticism, 170-71, 200-1; Pope, “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure,” in Muir and Wells, eds.,  Aspects of Shakespeare’s “Problem Plays, 60. In his explication of the Sermon on the Mount, Darryl Gless contends that even private “judgment” of individual by individual, if exercised properly, is not forbidden by Christ’s words (Measure for Measure, 43-49).
[29]. Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s Scepticism, 215.
[30]. Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s Scepticism, 178.
[31]. Hawkins finds the greatness of Measure for Measure to consist in its correct posing of “questions,” not in its development of “answers.” The play is a wonderful example of “the art of the insoluble.” See her Measure for Measure, 11, 38-39.
[32].“Shakespeare’s Mingled Yarn and Measure for Measure,” in Myriad-Minded Shakespeare, 147-68.
[33]. See A. D. Nutall, “Measure for Measure: Quid pro Quo?” quoted in Bradshaw, Shakespeare’s Scepticism, 174.
[34]. On the opinions of Thomas Cartwright and of the later elders of Puritan Commonwealth concerning the death penalty for adultery, as well as Phillip Stubbes’s view that fornicators as well as adulterers and others guilty of sexual sins should “drinke a full draught of Moyses cuppe, that is, tast of present death,” see Victoria Hayne, “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure,” 15-20, 29.
[35]. “Shakespeare as Casuist: Measure for Measure,” in Calderwood and Toliver, eds., Essays in Shakespearean Criticism, 332-36.
[36]. For an historical discussion of casuistry that goes beyond caricature, see Jonsen and Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning.
[37]. Consider, for example, the theologians’ opinion that “if someone with a drawn sword forces me to eat prohibited food . . . , if I should give scandal to the weak-minded by doing so or if I should be forced to do it in contempt of the Church, I am bound to suffer death than eat such food” (Holmes, ed., Elizabethan Casuistry, 62).
[38]. Devlin, Robert Southwell, 312-13. Cf. Samuel Johnson: “The general rule is that truth should never be violated. . . . There must, however, be some exceptions. If, for instance, a murderer should ask you which way a man is gone, you may tell him what is not true, because you are under a previous obligation not to betray a man to a murderer. It may be urged, that what a man has no right to ask, you may refuse to communicate; and there is no other effectual mode of preserving a secret, and an important secret, the discovery of which may be very hurtful to you, but a flat denial; for if you are silent, or evade, it will be held equivalent to a confession” (quoted in Caraman, Henry Garnet, 447-48).
[39]. Jonsen and Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry, 196. See also Sommerville, “The ‘new art of lying’: Equivocation, Mental Reservation, and Casuistry,” in Leites, ed., Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe, 161-66.
[40]. Somerville,“The ‘new art of lying,’” 177.
[41]. Some Protestants, following Luther, denied a theological distinction between “venial” and “mortal” sins. Southwell felt that in defending the Catholic faith, he had to fight against the ancient heresy, now reborn, that denied a qualitative difference among sins (EC, 84r).
[42]. Empson, The Structure of Complex Words, 280, 283.
[43]. Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure, 166.
[44]. See Eccles, ed., Variorum Measure for Measure, 430-38; Geckle, ed., Critical Tradition, passim.
[45]. Leech, “The ‘Meaning’ of Measure for Measure,” 70.
[46]. Leech, “‘The Meaning’ of Measure for Measure, 69.
[47]. 5.1.177-78; cf. All’s Well, 5.3.290-93.
[48]. Henry Swinburne, A Treatise of Spousals (ca. 1600), quoted in Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,” 86.
[49]. Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure, 85.
[50]. See Henry Swinburne, quoted in Wentersdorf, “The Marriage Contracts in ‘Measure for Measure’: A Reconsideration,” 136. Swinburne is exceedingly scrupulous on the matter of intention: “if the Parties having contracted Spousals de futuro, do afterwards know each other, but in truth not with that affection, which doth become Man and Wife, but (as Adulterers do) with a beastly purpose only to satisfie their foul Lusts, in this case it is not true Matrimony in Conscience; neither are they Man and Wife before God, though it be otherwise in Mans Judgment; because the Law presumeth, that the Parties espoused in knowing each other, had no foul intent of committing Fornication, but an honest affection as is meet for marryed Persons” (Wentersdorf, 140n1). Angelo’s intention to commit “Fornication” is obvious to “Mans Judgment”and would remove any possibility of “true Matrimony.”
[51]. Henry Swinburne, quoted in Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,” 83.
[52]. On adultery as a grounds for dissolution, see Henry Swinburne, quoted in Schanzer, “The Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,” 85. Angelo did in fact accuse Mariana of a “reputation” for “levity” (5.1.222),  “pretending in her discoveries of dishonor” (3.1.227); but these slurs may have been uttered to make him seem less caddish for abandoning his betrothed because she had lost her dowry. In order to have dissolved a de praesenti spousal, Angelo would have had to prove in court his “wife’s” adultery--a task which he does not seem to have attempted, and which, since we can believe the Duke’s word “pretending,” would have been pointless.
[53]. J. Birje-Patil has argued weakly that what was “promised” in the de praesenti contract of Angelo and Mariana was simply the marriage ceremony itself (“Marriage Contracts in Measure for Measure,” 108-109).
[54]. Harding, “Elizabethan Betrothals and ‘Measure for Measure,’” 143. Wentersdorf argues that the “sin” involved would have been not sexual immorality but “disobedience [to] Church law” (132).
[55]. Angelo’s “intent” to have sex with Isabella was not fulfilled. Isabella may argue as if Angelo’s “act” of fornication with Mariana were not a legally punishable crime because of her earlier trust in the friar/Duke, who she now believes could not count as a crime what he once proposed as legitimate.
[56]. Schanzer assumes that the “oath” that Angelo and Mariana swore made their de futuro contract sponsalia jurata (“sworn spousals”), the abrogation of which could not be undertaken by one of the parties alone, unless there were established “just cause” (such as fornication) dissolving the sworn contract. Absent a “just cause,” the marriage could be compelled by “Censures Ecclesiastical” (85-86). Angelo’s accusation of “levity” in Mariana might then have helped to release him from an oath that could have forced his marriage to her. The play does not suggest, however, that “levity” was proved; yet there are no indications that Mariana could have legally held Angelo to his oath. Angelo’s obligation seems primarily, if not exclusively, a moral one.
[57]. Quoted in Pope, “The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure,” 65.
[58]. “Performing Social Practice,” 28.
[59]. On the Duke’s inability to transform the “inward” lives of the characters, see Katherine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (cf. Wheeler, ed., Critical Essays, 213). The Duke, she says, “can bring the aggressive, devouring, suicidal impulses associated with sexuality throughout the play under the institutional rubric of marriage; but in order for us to experience the ending as ‘happy,’ we have to forget the critique of such disciplinary structures mounted in the earlier acts, overlooking the fact that merely institutional arrangements do not address the fundamental unruliness of sexual desire.” The play, of course, does not criticize all “institutional structures”; it is concerned with much more than “sexual desire”; and such desire is not presented, pace Maus, as “intrinsically, digracefully errant” (199).
[60]. Mary Lascelles believed that because Shakespeare, following Giraldi and Whetstone, made Isabella the unmarried sister of the condemned man instead of (as in other analogues of the tale) his wife, he wished to introduce a reason why the woman’s yielding would be difficult and not somehow reparable by the violator’s willingness to marry her (Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, 150-51). Thus he placed Isabella in a nunnery. Isabella was only a novice, however, without vows (1.4.9-10), and could leave the convent to marry if she would--a fact of which the Duke was well aware.
[61]. See Lever, ed., Measure for Measure, xlviii-l; Bawcutt, ed., Measure for Measure, 3-5.
[62]. Jardine, ed. Criminal Trials, 1.335-36. Serjeant Yelverton had insisted that in matters of treason, the proof of “intention” was sufficient for conviction (1.315).
[63]. Jardine, ed., Criminal Trials, 1.341, 343.
[64]. Akrigg, Southampton, 125.

Copyright © John Klause 2013.