Shakespeare’s plays are thought experiments. Staged inquiries or dramatic essays, they pose problems and speculate about their solutions. There is nothing doctrinaire about Shakespeare’s evaluation of the questions his plays raise. His instinct is to be analytical, not ideological—although he is hardly oblivious to the workings of ideology. Washington, D.C., residents might be forgiven for thinking of the Bard as the house dramatist at a nonpartisan think tank. He continually puts positions and even polemics on the table, setting them in motion and at odds with one another, but he never sponsors any one of them. In fact, his plays, with their hosts of characters and their tolerance for contradictory points of view, have numerous advantages over the argumentative form of the written essay or policy statement.
In the case of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare seems to have been thinking about governance. How does one govern a city (Vienna) or oneself (Angelo) in the face of recalcitrance? More to the point, how does one manage the eruption of unruly sexual desire—in others and in oneself?
First the city: Duke Vincentio himself acknowledges that sexuality has gone unpoliced in Vienna for fourteen years. Because he has “let slip” that city’s “strict statutes,” a culture of prostitution and extra-marital fornication prevails. Now, he aims to step aside and install as his deputy Angelo, a “man of stricture and firm abstinence.” Hence the first response to urban decay that the play probes is a straightforward law and order approach. Afforded the power to “strike home,” Angelo intends his punitive reaction to Claudio and Juliet’s extramarital relations to set an example for all of Vienna’s denizens. The loss of her maidenhead will cost him his head. Fair-minded and patient, Shakespeare gives Angelo quite a bit of air time in his debates with Isabella during which he rationalizes his policies.
But the play has on offer other responses to Viennese disarray. The Duke, for example, for all his responsibility in deputizing Angelo, has doubts about his surrogate’s rigor. He himself endorses a much less draconian, rather wily response to lawlessness: the ameliorative or therapeutic, putatively benign approach of the social engineer or mental healthcare professional. If he can just analyze the big picture and then get all the pieces to fall into their right places, a kind of uplift, or healing, will take place. Whereas Angelo assumes that our natures (his own, included) are incorrigible, the Duke has faith in the perfectibility of our better natures—or at least in his own ability to perfect them.
Measure for Measure also explores religious forms of governance. The Duke dons the robes of a friar and speaks on behalf of the power of penitence and conscience to redeem a corrupt community. But we know that he is no friar, so we may well feel uneasy when he compromises the deep emotional power of auricular confession (not to mention orchestrates the play’s bed trick, ever so casually putting Mariana in bed with Angelo).
Finally the play gives us glimpses of alternative communities, at once part of and apart from the city. There is the prison, in which the unregenerate, drunken Barnardine (our play’s Falstaff, or perhaps its Caliban) seems to have found a congenial home. It is not at all clear at the play’s end that by granting him mercy, the Duke has done him a favor. There is also the convent, to which we see Isabella repairing at the start of the play. How might this sororal community counteract the sordid, pestilential, sewer sexuality of Mistress Overdone, Pompey and their ilk? We might construe both the prison and the convent as escapist venues, insulated from or indifferent to the complexities of life in an unruly city. Or we might think of them as distinct fellowships, replete with rules of their own. For her part, Isabella contemplates entering the order of Saint Clare because she seeks “more strict restraint” for herself. What can she be thinking—Shakespeare gives her no words—when the Duke proposes marriage to her in the closing lines of the play?
If governing Vienna—achieving the right balance between what the play calls “scope” and “restraint”—is one of the burdens of the Measure for Measure thought experiment, self-governance is its other preoccupation. This pertains to restraint-seeking Isabella, and to the fastidious, “decorum”-obsessed Duke—a man who tells us that “the dribbling dart of love/ Can[not] pierce [his] complete bosom.” But the more fully developed case study in this play is the self-loathing, hypocritical, puritanical Angelo. Surely, the play’s most electrifying moment commences with his repetition of just two words, spoken late in act 2, scene 2: “What’s this? What’s this?” To his shock and dismay, Angelo, he of “firm abstinence” and about whom it is said that his “urine is congealed ice,” has been aroused by the “enskied [heavenly] and sainted” Isabella. By Isabella in the habit of a nun, no less! How can this be and how ought he to respond to this “rebellion of [his] codpiece”? How, Shakespeare asks, do we govern our own sexual desire?
Just like us when desire rises unbidden, Angelo finds himself baffled. He has hardly a clue why he now feels what he feels, just as he will remain deeply confused about why he does what he does. How can it be, he asks in soliloquy, “That modesty may more betray our sense/Than woman’s lightness?” Why should a nun turn me on when I am indifferent to experienced prostitutes? But matters turn much darker and more disturbing when the deputy goes on to ask himself, “Having waste ground enough,/Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary/And pitch our evils there?” The language of urban renewal, of “waste ground,” razing and pitching, is recruited to sexuality. Defloration becomes demolition and ejaculation, evil-pitching. Not just desire has reared its head, but “foul” desire: ruthlessly honest with himself as he always is, Angelo admits that he desires Isabella “foully for those things/That make her good.” He wants to foul her, to soil her, to coerce her into giving up her body to “sweat uncleanness.” He wants her to admit that she “wants it” every bit as much as he does. But he does not know why. And it is not clear that Shakespeare knows, either. The conundrum that Shakespeare would have known as akrasia—when we act against our own better judgment—puzzled Plato and continues to puzzle philosophers to this day.
Near the start of the play, the Duke speaks vengefully of the “bits and curbs” required to restrain Viennese sexuality. One act later, Angelo has compulsively begun to give his “sensual race the rein,” as if his desire were a barely controllable racehorse. But now his sadism becomes at once ferocious and repellent: he tells Isabella that she must “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite.” What he has in mind, he calls “saucy sweetness.” Aroused by an innocent novitiate, Angelo feels “goad[ed] on/To sin in loving virtue.” The paradox that the play probes in these lines turns on the limits of self-governance when our desire is inherently compromised, when, to some degree, it is always unsanctified. Long before Dr. Freud, Shakespeare asked whether any of us can find our way to sin-free, or innocent, sex.
Our inclination is to distance ourselves from Angelo’s depravity. We tell ourselves that he is a monster and that we are not like he is. But the play insists that desire, even perverse desire, can rebel in any one of us. Shakespeare’s surprising, if shrewd, argument for this is the Duke, who imagines that he is immune to the cravings of “burning youth.” The play’s still more stunning proof of the perversity of desire emanates from chaste Isabella herself. Confronted with an intolerable choice—sex with Angelo or consent to her brother’s execution—she imagines herself “under terms of death.” In such a circumstance, she unselfconsciously exclaims that she would “th’ impression of keen whips . . . wear as rubies/ And strip myself to death as to a bed/That longing [I] have been sick for.” His sadism finds an answering voice in her masochism. She converts bloody lashes into a martyr’s jewelry and turns death itself into a lover for whom she is sick with desire.
There are no pat answers to the question of how to regulate desire in Measure for Measure’s Vienna, or anywhere else. Nor are there easy solutions to the management of this play’s characters’ desires, or our own. Our flesh, our sexuality, has the power to unhinge the best, even the most ascetic, among us. By Shakespeare’s reckoning, all of our erotic desires are more or less perverse. Unwilling to lobby on behalf of one or another form of governance (or theology or psychology), he contents himself with analysis. His thrilling, often unnerving play leaves it to us to decide for ourselves where we stand.
Theodore Leinwand has taught Shakespeare at the University of Maryland for more than thirty years. He is an associate editor of Shakespeare Quarterly and he has written two books on Jacobean London, its plays and their social and economic context.