By Diana Major Spencer

Although Measure for Measure shares with Shakespeare’s other comedies the general theme so eloquently expressed by Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (1.1.134; all references to the play are taken from The Necessary Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, New York: Longman, 2002), here the obstacles to love, instead of envious uncles, headstrong fathers, love potions or mistaken identities, are money, legal and moral aberrations, and the execution of justice. Moreover, the title of this “dark comedy/problem play,” instead of “Will they live happily ever after?,” invites heavier questions: Do the ends justify the means? Does the punishment fit the crime? Is measure returned for measure?

To Duke Vincentio, the answer is apparently “No.” Because he is too weak to enforce his own laws, he leaves his post to become puppet-master in the habit of a friar, aided and abetted by Friar Thomas. “We have strict statutes and most biting laws,” the duke tells the friar, “[which are] the needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,/ Which for this fourteen years we have let slip” (1.3.19 21). If parents merely display the rod without using it, he continues, “in time the rod/ Becomes more mocked than feared” (1.3.26 27). He himself cannot stiffen the enforcement, he says: “Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope,/ ‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them/ For what I [allowed] them [to] do” (1.3.35 37). Therefore, the duke will place his trust in Angelo, ostensibly to reform enforcement policies.

But why Angelo? The duke’s first speech (1.1.3 14) establishes Escalus as the most knowledgeable and trustworthy administrator. However, he explains to Friar Thomas, “Lord Angelo is precise,/ Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses/ That his blood flows or that his appetite/ Is more to bread than stone” (1.3.50 53). He has earlier told Angelo that Nature does not give us virtues to waste on ourselves, but to use, “for if our virtues/ Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike/ as if we had them not” (1.1.34 36). Angelo protests that a “test [should be] made of my mettle” (1.1.49) before being entrusted with such responsibility. Nevertheless, the duke charges him, “[B]e thou at full ourself,/ Mortality and mercy in Vienna/ Live in thy tongue and heart” (1.1.44 46), twenty lines later adding, “Your scope is as mine own,/ So to enforce or qualify the laws/ As to your soul seems good” (1.1.65-67, emphases mine).

Two scenes later, the duke reveals to Friar Thomas that such a test is indeed underway: “Hence shall we see,/ If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.3.553 54), i.e., if power corrupts, can Angelo remain virtuous--or continue to seem so? The duke’s lines certainly challenge the veracity of Angelo’s virtue, but they simultaneously reveal the duke’s true purpose.

The first trial of Angelo’s authority is Claudio, a young man in love--and legally betrothed--who must be executed for fornication--getting with child his legal, though not sanctified, wife. When Isabella, a would-be nun, pleads for her brother’s life, Angelo is willing to commit the very act for which he’s condemning Claudio. However, his propositioning Isabella is several shades darker than the indiscretion of Claudio because it lacks the formality of betrothal. Isabella’s submission would thus be to a lustful hypocrite whose new-found power has turned to license, as the duke had feared.

The moral lessons I learned as a child centered on the distinction between right and wrong. All we have to do to be good is to avoid evil. Good will be rewarded; evil punished--that’s all we need to know to make the right choices and live a good life. Then we grow up. Choices become more complicated. Obeying “shalt not’s” does not necessarily lead us to corresponding “shalt’s.” Sometimes the choice is not between “shalt” and “shalt not,” but between “should” and “but.” Moral quibbling? Perhaps; but it is also Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

When I first read this play as a nineteen-year-old, I found the complexity of its moral issues far more intriguing--and truthful--than the simple right-or-wrong of my childhood. I wondered whether I would refuse my brother’s plea for life, especially as execution seemed rather excessive for the seriousness of the crime--even though I understood that in many traditions (including mine) virginity is considered more precious than life. I might fight to the death against a rapist, I thought, but could I refuse my brother, whose keeper I surely am? Which “commandment” should I choose when I can’t choose both?

Years later, I used this dilemma as a moral lesson for teenagers. I introduced Angelo, Claudio and Juliet, and Isabella, then reviewed the plot as far as Angelo’s challenge to Isabella. “What should she do?” I asked. ALL of the boys voted for Isabella’s submission; ALL of the girls said, “No! Let Claudio die!” Then we discussed the difficulty of competing moral duties.

Still, Claudio and Juliet should have waited for marriage rather than consummating a mere betrothal, so maybe he deserves to be punished. Moreover, if Isabella is sincere about the cloistered life, submission should be categorically out of the question. Perhaps abandoning Claudio to the law and Juliet to poverty and ostracism is the proper choice.

In our liberal twenty-first century, such ado about betrothal and fornication may seem bizarre, but not so for Elizabethans. In fact, the now archaic original meaning of betroth was “to engage (a woman) in contract of marriage; . . . To contract two persons to each other in order to marriage [sic].” Betrothed was used figuratively “of God and his Church or people” (OED, Compact Edition 1:208), suggesting that such a contract, sometimes described as legally binding, was very serious indeed.

In an interesting parallel, Isabella is “betrothed” to God, though not yet “married.” She has made the initial commitment, but not yet taken her final vows. As it turns out, she, too, violates her “betrothal,” not in submission to Angelo, but in--though she does not speak it--agreeing to marry Vincentio. By the way, what moral law topples when she agrees to the bed-trick of sending Mariana to Angelo in her place?

When Duke Vincentio, who has lurked in the shadows throughout, suggests the way to both save Claudio and protect Isabel’s virginity, we learn about Mariana, Angelo’s betrothed. With the introduction of Mariana, the duke reveals that power may not actually have corrupted Angelo, since he’d already displayed earlier indications of moral weakness—for example, abandoning a contract of betrothal because “[his bride’s] brother Frederick was wrecked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister” (3.1.218 19).

Shakespeare is careful to say that Mariana and Angelo were “affianced . . . by oath, and the nuptial appointed” (3.1.216); the shipwreck took place “between which time of the contract and limit of the solemnity” (3.1.216 18), that is, between the formal betrothal, which was supposed to be legally binding, and the church ceremony, which solemnized the union. Similarly, Claudio had explained his “crime” this way: “[U]pon a true contract/ I got possession of Julietta’s bed./ You know the lady; she is fast my wife,/ Save that we do the denunciation lack/ Of outward order” (1.2.142 45).

Poor Angelo, with his brilliantly ironic name, has broken a contract, abandoned a(n almost) wife, condemned another man to death for consummating a vow he himself had breached, then propositioned a(n almost) nun. Furthermore, unless Duke Vincentio spent his friar-time dredging up Angelo’s past history, he knew about Angelo’s treatment of Mariana from the beginning. Knowing what he did of Angelo, the duke thus set him up to fail.

Do the ends justify the means? Ironically, the moral turmoil among the “nice” people is more engrossing than the homelessness of the pimps and prostitutes left destitute by Angelo’s legal enforcements. Perhaps some sort of justice occurs among these social outcasts. Still, their “crimes” are paradoxically more “honest” than those of their “betters.”

Do the “punishments” fit the “crimes”? We know Measure for Measure is a comedy because it ends with marriages instead of deaths. Of the two voluntary marriages, Claudio and Julietta, who are already betrothed and with child, are redeemed after unnecessary and cruel manipulation; and Vincentio, a spy, manipulator, and duke too weak to enforce his own laws, and Isabella, a religious novitiate who breaks her vows to God to marry the duke, seem to deserve each other. Of the involuntary marriages, Angelo, with the aid of Isabella’s mercy, is “punished” for his abuses of power by being forced to follow through with a contract he’d broken five years before; and Mariana, though abandoned by Angelo over the dowry, is finally “rewarded” for her patience and fidelity by having the breached contract restored. The fourth couple, Shakespeare’s usual, though not typical, comedic love-match from the lower classes, pairs the strongly objecting Lucio, an opportunist and flatterer, with Mistress Kate Keepdown, a prostitute impregnated by him.

“Happily ever after” seems unlikely.