8-4 literary

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.4 (Fall 2008)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Measure, for Measure: The Bible Contra Puritanical Christianity 

Michael Sugrue


“…the real dramatist of forgiveness is and remains Shakespeare.”

Von Balthasar, Theo-Drama


     Like human life itself, Measure for Measure is a very serious comedy.  Like the Bible, Measure for Measure is a comedy of cosmic proportions.  Taken together, the Old and New Testaments comprise the only other comedy of comparable seriousness, and Shakespeare’s play, although less detailed, is far more compact and economical.  Measure for Measure and the Bible are paradoxically self explanatory; both works reflexively talk about themselves and their shared hidden meanings.  As it is written, “…all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matthew 26:56).[1]  In the beginning of Measure for Measure (1.1. 56-58), the Duke artfully informs us, “…We shall write to you, / As time, and our concerning shall importune, / How it goes with us, and doe you looke to know / What doth befall you here…”[2]  The writings which the Duke sends may be called the Bible, the knowledge of what “doth befall you here” referring to the events which occur “here” in Vienna, “here” on Earth, and “here” in the play.  Measure for Measure is an intellectual tour de force that encompasses art, politics, ethics, and religion in a theatrical allegory of the human condition.

     It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Bible for the interpretation of Measure for Measure.  The play might be thought of as an extended meditation on Jesus’ statement in John 8:7, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” and on Paul’s admonition in Romans 2:22, “Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery?  Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?”  Although many books of the Bible are borrowed from, the books most frequently employed are the Synoptic gospels and the epistle of Paul to the Romans.  The plot of Measure for Measure reformulates what might be called the eschatological “absent master” parables in the synoptic gospels.[3]  The master leaves, the servants misbehave, the master returns, and he punishes the guilty while relieving the oppressed.  Compare 1.1.26-40 to Matthew 25:14-15: “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.  And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.”  The talents given to puritanical Angelo are the greatest of all.  The properly Christian response to the sanctimonious severity of Puritanism is alluded in the title: “Judge not, that ye shall not be judged.  For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thy own eye?”[4]

     A close examination will reveal scores of Biblical motifs, borrowings, parallels, inversions and paraphrases.[5]  The complexity and variety of the motifs in Measure for Measure can be unified by an examination of the reticulated Biblical themes that inform the play.  In 3.1.521-3 when the Duke explicitly condemns Angelo’s behavior, he says, “Shame to him whose cruell striking/ Kils for faults of his owne liking:/ Twice trebble shame on Angelo.”  Those who are familiar with Biblical numerology will understand “twice treble” shame: six is the number of evil.  Shakespeare is hoisting the Puritans on their own petard, using the Bible and its symbols to expose the corruption of its seeming defenders.  The boldness of Shakespeare’s response to Puritanism is very thinly veiled in allegory, which is in all probability why it was given such a repeated and severe editorial beating.  Even the comic relief in Measure for Measure is gilded with Biblical references.  In 4.2.2-4, when Abhorson asks Pompey “…can you cut off a man’s head?”  Pompey replies, “If the man be a Bachelor, Sir, I can: but if he be a married man, he’s his wive’s head, / And I can never cut off a woman’s head.”  This low comedy is derived from a high source, the Pauline epistles.[6]  Measure for Measure invites the reader to carefully reread the Bible as a necessary first step in decoding and appreciating the play.  There are hints to this effect in the play itself.  Beginning with the title, which is taken from the synoptic gospels, strange Christian images [“Looke, / th’unfolding Starre calls up the Shepheard….” (4.2.199-200)] crop up for no obvious reason.  Unexpectedly, Biblical references such as 1.2.7-15, in which Lucio discusses the sanctimonious pirate who eliminated one commandment from the Decalogue, create a religious resonance unique among Shakespeare’s plays.

     The depth of this play and the extent of its aspirations cannot be made apparent without a historically contextualized reconstruction of the damaged Measure for Measure text.  Such a reconstruction requires a familiarity with English history.  It also requires a knowledge of scripture, which Shakespeare had, which his Puritan antagonists had and which Shakespeare’s audience also had.  Measure for Measure makes greater demands on a contemporary reader than any other comedy, but the unexpected profundity of Shakespeare’s achievement makes the effort well justified.  As the Duke explains gnomically in 4.2. 200-202, “…put not / yourself into amazement how these things should be; / All difficulties are but easie when they are knowne.”

     It is important to note that the Duke states of Lord Angelo that “…we have with speciall soule / Elected him…” (1.1.18-19) and that Angelo is “precise” (1.4.50).  The Puritans regarded themselves as the spiritually “elect”.  In seventeenth century usage, a “Precisian” was a synonym for “Puritan”.  In a reference to Matthew 7:9 and Luke 11:11 , the Duke explains that he has returned disguised as a Friar because Angelo “ … scarce confesses / That his blood flowes: or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone: hence we see / If power change purpose: what our Seemers be” (1.4.51-4).  In Shakespeare’s time, Puritans were agitating for moral and political reform that entailed (among other things) the destruction of theatres.  They proposed the abolition of drama for the same reason Angelo orders the brothels of Vienna destroyed: they were promoting public lewdness.  Stephen Gosson’s 1579 tract against theatre, The School of Abuse, was the first of many Puritan diatribes against the immorality of drama in the Elizabethan age.  The Puritan preacher Philip Stubbes stated the party line in his tract against theatre, Anatomy of Abuses (1583): “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry?  Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness?  Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity?”[7]

     Advocates of drama were considerably less numerous that the critics.  Sir Philip Sidney wrote a response to the charges leveled by Puritans in his Defense of Poesie but withheld it from publication for fifteen years, perhaps because he feared the political repercussions.  This work was written in 1583 but not published until 1598, when it generated a firestorm of political and religious controversy.  The conflict between the advocates and critics of drama was still raging in 1604 when Shakespeare made his allegorical contribution to the dispute.  In Measure for Measure Shakespeare is vindicating the theatre by criticizing the proud, merciless hypocrisy of Puritanism.  Angelo, the archetype of Puritanical arrogance and self deception, is Shakespeare’s retort to their moral indictment of drama.  As Angelo says, “…most dangerous / Is that temptation that doth goad us on / To sinne in loving vertue” (2.3.184-6).  Using the Bible as a template, in Measure for Measure Shakespeare uses drama to hold up vice to ridicule and attempts to improve rather than debase public morals.  This play exactly instantiates the argument Sidney had made in the Defense of Poesie six years earlier.  Shakespeare’s play is sufficiently candid not to suggest that theatre is unconnected with sexual sin, but rather points out that such sin is ubiquitous.  As the Provost says, “All Sects, all Ages smack of this vice…” (2.2.5).  Sexual desire is intrinsic to human nature and some degree of transgression is ineradicable.  As Lucio cleverly says (3.1.364-6), “…the vice is of a great kindred: / it is well allied; but it is impossible to extirp it quite, / Friar, till eating and drinking be put downe…”

     A reading of Measure for Measure that is not informed by English history and Biblical literature is a dreadful experience.  Without such background, Measure for Measure is not merely a “problem play”: it is opaque, formless, diffuse, chaotic.  Characters that are by turns irritating, repulsive, and incomprehensible are sentenced to comedic hard labor in an ill-constructed, painfully unfunny plot containing a miscellany of irrelevant, implausible events capped off by a deus ex machina.  Consider the character of Marianna.  She was slandered and fraudulently jilted in an engagement five years ago by Angelo, who is now a political appointee sexually blackmailing a novice nun.  This is hardly hilarious, and it gets worse.  A Friar, who is really a disguised Duke, but whom Marianna nonetheless knows well, comes to her and asks if she would consent to a silent nocturnal defloration by her former fiancé who will believe that she is the ill-treated nun.  Marianna promptly agrees.  If this is intended to realistically represent human actions and the workings of the human psyche, this meandering absurdity is surely the worst play Shakespeare ever wrote.

     Other, equally suspicious oddities of characterization abound.  Isabella, for example, is a novice nun whose devotion to Christianity is so complete that she is willing to sacrifice her brother’s life and her own rather than commit mortal sin.  She would choose death before damnation and accept martyrdom rather than betray God’s moral injunctions.  This makes it very hard to understand Isabella when she asked Angelo to mollify his severity and spare her brother’s life.  She says (2.2.112-3), “Could great men thunder / As Jove himself do’s, Jove would never be quiet….”[8]  Jove, who sentenced Prometheus to have his liver torn out and eaten by vultures on a daily basis, is a puzzling point of reference in a colloquy about mercy.  Why does Isabella, with her unshakeable Christian piety, explain divine mercy with reference to the head of the Roman pantheon, a god in whom neither she nor Angelo believes?

     The structure of the plot is, if possible, even worse.  Consider Act 4 Scene 5, a minor miracle of dramatic incoherence.  This scene is one of the shortest in any Shakespearean play, a mere thirteen lines long.  The Duke speaks ten of these lines to Friar Peter, giving him letters and telling him to notify Flavius, Valentinus, Rowland and Crassus of his location and to bring trumpets to the city gate.  The Friar exits.  Varrius enters and the Duke says, “I thank thee Varrius, thou has made good haste.”  Varrius does not reply.  Perhaps he is out of breath because in his haste he has failed to show up for any of the earlier scenes in the play.  His absence from the earlier action will be artfully balanced by his lack of speech or action in any of the subsequent scenes.  The spectator may wonder, what is the point of this superfluous character?  Who is Varrius?  What is he doing here?  The answer, it seems, is that Varrius is doing the same thing Flavius, Valentinus, Rowland and Crassus are doing: nothing.  In the text of Measure for Measure that we have, Shakespeare introduces in a mere thirteen lines five previously unknown characters who do not say or do anything in the remainder of the play.  This anticipates Pirandello: instead of Six Characters in Search of an Author, we have Five Characters in Search of a Purpose. The next scene (4.6) is almost equally brief (15 lines) and then the single climactic scene in Act 5 ends the play.[9]  If Shakespeare actually wrote the imbecile (4.5) as we have it, perhaps the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon or somebody really did write the other plays.  The hand that wrote Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest did not produce this nonsense.          

     The closer one examines the language of Measure for Measure, the more numerous, obvious and vexing the textual problems become.  What, for example, does it mean twice to describe Friar Lodowick, (really the Duke in disguise) as being “ghostly”?  In 4.3.45, Abhorson the executioner says, “Looke you sir, heere comes your ghostly father.”  It is easy enough to understand how Hamlet’s father might be thought of as ghostly, but in what sense is the Friar ghostly?  Why does the Duke in 5.1.128 describe the Friar as “a ghostly father belike: / Who knowes that Lodowick?” since after all he himself is the Friar but he is not at all ghostly?  Other utterances are equally mysterious.  The Provost greets Angelo in 2.2.25 with the line, “’Save your honor.” Isabella offers Angelo the same strange salutation a little later in (2.2 165). “’Save your honor.”  What sense is to be attached to this?  It makes no sense to interpret this as an imperative sentence, since neither the Provost nor Isabella is in a position to issue orders to Angelo, nor is his honor in jeopardy.  Yet, if it is not an imperative sentence, then it is not a sentence at all.          

     The ubiquitous Christian themes, (sin, grace, confession, repentance, blessing, judgement, nuns, friars, etc.) are not at all funny, and the oddly serious tone of Measure for Measure is quite disconcerting.  Despite the best efforts of Pompey, Elbow, Barnardine, Abhorson, Lucio and Mistress Overdone to provide a counterpoint of comic relief, Measure for Measure creates a mood of perplexity and leaden anticipation.  It is such a grim comedy that some critics have been tempted to describe it as a “problem play” rather than a comedy at all.  Measure for Measure is indeed problematical, but not for the reasons usually given.  No less a critic than Dr. Johnson noted two centuries ago that “there is perhaps not one of Shakespeare’s plays more darkened than this by the peculiarities of the author and the unskillfulness of its editors, by distortions of phrase or negligence of transcription.”[10]

     With all due respect to Dr. Johnson, the problems of Measure for Measure are not Shakespeare’s, and the negligence of transcription actually helps the reconstruction of the play.  The textual problems of Measure for Measure are the product of later Puritanical censorship.  The conceptual problems are the product of divine intervention, or, more precisely, the apparent lack of divine intervention.  Measure for Measure is saturated in religious references, yet in slightly more than 2700 lines, the word “God” never appears in the text of Measure for Measure as we have it from the First Folio.  Only after God is reintroduced and the text of the play is reconstructed can the form and content of Measure for Measure be rendered intelligible.  Measure for Measure is like the Silenus statue in Plato’s Symposium.  Only after the text is reconstituted can we view the sacred images hidden within the coarse, profane exterior.

     Despite its apparent defects, Measure for Measure is in fact the greatest comedy ever written.  Its intellectual ambitions are enormous and its subtlety is often too subtle for many contemporary literary critics.  Measure for Measure is a five-act synopsis of all human history as it is represented in the Bible: in that respect it is permanently timeless.  Within its time it is a polemic against Puritanism and its self-righteous, highly tendentious interpretation of scripture.  It is moreover a moral justification of comedy and tragedy in dramatic form, a vindication of theatre against its Puritan opponents, who sought (eventually with success) to close all theatres and completely abolish drama in England on moral grounds.

     The historical context of Measure for Measure is revealing.  Shakespeare was already a prominent playwright when Puritanical reformers attempted to ban drama for political and moral reasons.  In 1597, the Privy Council had issued an order prohibiting plays and requiring the destruction of theatres already built.  “Her majesty being informed that there are very great disorders committed in common playhouses both by lewd matters that are handled and by resort and confluence of bad people…no plays shall be used in London or about the city… also those playhouses that are erected and built only for such purposes shall be plucked down.”[11]  Several contemporary theatre owners, such as Philip Henslowe and John Alleyn, also owned brothels, and the theatrical community surely understood that a threat to one was a threat to the other.[12]  Just before the production of Measure for Measure, in 1603, the brothels of London had been ordered closed to prevent the spread of disease by “dissolute and idle persons”.[13]  Although the restrictions against theatres and brothels were eventually relaxed, given the rising power of Puritanism, the status of both remained precarious.  This presented Shakespeare with a problem and an opportunity.  The unctuous self-righteousness of puritanical killjoys is a very apt target for satire, but this could easily backfire.  Any overtly profane, scurrilous or bawdy attack on Puritanism would be represented by Shakespeare’s opponents as an attack on religion and moral decency, thereby strengthening the Puritan’s argument against theatre.  Shakespeare needed to use an intellectual rapier, not a bludgeon.  His inspired decision to formulate his attack on Puritanism in the form of a Biblical allegory is a stroke of genius, the lethal theatrical analogue of Laertes’ poisoned foil. 

     The first known production of Measure for Measure was at the Royal Court on December 26, 16 04.  Earlier in that same year, Puritan spokesmen, intending to enact Mosaic law, had unsuccessfully attempted to have adultery, defined as “ravishing anyone’s wife, fiancé or daughter”, made a felony, which would make it a capital offense.[14]  In 1650, during the Puritan revolution, adultery eventually was made a capital offense.  Given the state of contemporary politics, the references to the increasing strictness of laws against fornication would be understood by everyone in the audience.

     Since Measure for Measure was originally a part of royal Christmas festivities of 1604, the relevance of Christian ideas and images to the play is easy to discern.  Since Puritans disdained Christmas as a “Popish” holiday, this was an apt time to present an attack on Puritanism.  It is possible that some influential members of the audience who comprehended the allegory may have been offended by the representation of Angelo, the loathsome, hypocritical deputy.  The play was decidedly unpopular, and there is no record of Measure for Measure being performed again before the ban on theatre in 1642 during the Puritan Revolution.  A little more than a year after the only known production of Measure for Measure, the rising power of Puritanical reformers was made manifest when in May 1606 Parliament made illegal the use of God’s name on stage.  No doubt, the legal enforcement of the Third Commandment impeded thinly veiled political and religious criticism as well as theatrical blasphemy.  Shakespeare’s editors and publishers seem to have reacted with a flurry of censorial activity, deleting oaths, expurgating prayers, and cutting segments in which God’s name cannot simply be replaced with some other term.  It is generally accepted that all First Folio plays derived from Ralph Crane’s editing have been censored of oaths.  Because of its profusion of Biblical references and overtly religious themes, the redaction of Measure for Measure must have taxed the intellectual capacities of Crane (and other editors as well).  Indeed, Measure for Measure taxed them beyond their capacities.

     In one particularly noteworthy case, an editor made a revealing mistake.  In  2.4.4-5, Angelo says, “… Heaven in my mouth / As if I did only but chew his name.”  The problem here is not that Shakespeare did not understand English grammar.  The problem is that a careless editor changed the word God to Heaven without changing the corresponding pronoun.  “His” tells a tale.  Some, perhaps all, of the references to “Heaven” in the play were originally references to “God” which were later censored.  There are forty-six such references.  Before censorship, Isabella’s absurd references to “Jove” when asking mercy of Angelo were certainly references to “God”.  In our text of Measure for Measure, when the Provost and Isabella salute Angelo with, “’Save your honor,” the statement is gibberish.  If the original read, “God save your honor,” then it is perfectly comprehensible.  There were originally many references to God in the original version of Measure for Measure that were later censored for political reasons.  There may originally have been scores of invocations of “God” because there are hints that the text contains other changes wrought by editorial oversights.  For example, the content of Duke’s speech in 3.1.442-5 seems to be repeated in the Duke’s speech in 4.1.158-63, which may indicate that one of them is a patch sewn on to cover an editorial elision.

     In addition, the legacy of censorship apparent in the text of Measure for Measure as we have it should inform our understanding of the structure of the play.  It is worth suggesting that Act 4, scenes 5 and 6, which taken together only amount to 28 lines, are the literary wood chips left over from an editorial hatchet job.  What was once the age of the Spirit, a long preface to the apocalypse, an overtly theological scene just prior to the climax of the play, was just too full of “God” and malignant reflections on pharisaical hypocrisy to be salvaged.  Some witless, axe-wielding redactor seems to have revised the end of Act 4 by chopping out what he lacked the capacity to alter, leaving later readers puzzled by two opaque and discontinuous fragments which amount to little more than stopgap stage directions.  Act 4 Scenes 5 and 6 are redeemed only by their brevity; and the redactor, totally unredeemed, has no doubt been writhing in Hell for centuries on account of his sins against literature.     

     With this reconstruction, Measure for Measure emerges as parable composed of parables, a kaleidoscopic reformulation of themes, stories, people and moral teachings of the Bible, written with the intent of indicting coercive intolerant Christian sects like Puritanism.  This is no joke for Shakespeare.  The Puritans were threatening to abolish his art form and his livelihood.  He is returning “measure for measure”.  Measure for Measure vindicates the theatre of the charge (which had been made by some Christian moralists since the time of Tertullian and Augustine) that drama is a Dionysian art that incites sexual transgression and is intrinsically opposed to Christian morality.  Justifying theatre against such severe critics was a very ambitious project, because to a great extent, Tertullian, Augustine and the Puritans were right: in both theory and practice, the theatre was closely associated with sexual immorality.  All female roles were played by men.  The spectacle of men in drag imitating women has unsubtle homosexual resonances and is explicitly prohibited in the Bible.[15]  Moreover, the rowdy patrons of theatres often took the “liberty” of patronizing the taverns and whorehouses that were located close by.  As the Duke says (5.1.320), “… I have seen corruption boyle and bubble / Till it ore-run the Stew….”  The corruption of brothels or “stews” bubbled over into the theatres.

     Shakespeare brilliantly locates sexual immorality in the neighborhood of brothels and theatres in Act 1, Scene 2, by artfully capitalizing on the multiple meanings of the word “liberty”.  Lucio asks Claudio how he came to be arrested for fornication and put in shackles.  Claudio answers, “From too much liberty, (my Lucio)…” (1.3.10).  This is at least a quadruple entendre.  “Liberty” means freedom, but it also means license or undue familiarity (Claudio has taken “liberties” with Julietta).  Ironically, liberty also has a theological meaning—as the OED puts it, “freedom from the bondage of sin or the law”; but of course in this context it ironically means quite the opposite.  Most importantly, “liberty” has an archaic meaning that most twenty-first century readers will not recognize.  According to the OED, “in England before 1850” a liberty was “a district within the limits of a county, but exempt from the jurisdiction of the sheriff…”.  In 1580, the Lord Mayor of London had complained of the danger to public morals posed by “the erecting and frequenting of houses very infamous for incontinent rule out of our liberties and jurisdiction”.[16]  The “houses very infamous” referred to by the Lord Mayor were playhouses, not whorehouses, but he seems to have acknowledged little difference.  Because a “liberty” was a geographical area exempt from external legal oversight, it was often a red light district associated with the disorder and vice fostered by morally offensive establishments like taverns, brothels and theatres.  This is why in the same scene (1.2.94-5), Pompey describes Angelo’s proclamation against vice ambiguously as stating, “All howses in the Suburbs of Vienna must bee / pluck’d downe”.  Angelo is abolishing Vienna’s “liberties”, which breed lewdness, and the theatres are in danger of being pulled down along with the stews.

     Catholicism had made peace with drama during the Middle Ages by using morality plays and passion plays for liturgical and educational purposes.  For the more extreme sects of Protestantism, however, the rapprochement between the Church and the theatre was a moral indictment of both.  This may be the reason that the play is set in Catholic Vienna rather than Protestant London.  Measure for Measure owes much to the tradition of medieval Catholic morality plays because it uses symbolic characters and events derived from Biblical sources to hold vice up to ridicule and vindicate the cardinal Christian virtues: faith, hope and charity.[17]

     Like the medieval mystery plays, the names of the characters in Measure for Measure have symbolic meanings that reinforce the Biblical symbolism built into the plot.  The name of the Duke, Vincentio, means “conqueror”.  This is apt because the Duke is YHWH, the omnipotent, omniscient God of the Old Testament who conquers all who oppose him.  He is the wrathful Lord of the merciless servant in Matthew 18:32-45.  Like Prospero in the Tempest, the Duke is always in control without always seeming to be.  Unlike the other characters in the play, he is not fooled by outward appearances.  Vincentio is the deus abscondita, a Tester who enacts moral laws, assigns praise and blame, and is ultimately revealed to be the only righteous judge.  He is the awesome, inscrutable God of the book of Job who is at best only partially comprehended by human beings.  As in the case of Job, the afflictions he sends to human beings are painful but educative, not pointlessly cruel.  As it is written Psalm 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now I have kept thy word.”  The characters in Measure for Measure, like Job, are chastened but improved, so that they ultimately realize Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.”

     In Measure for Measure, YHWH goes fishing for the Beast in Puritanism, because He can do what human beings cannot, “… draw out Leviathan with an hook”.[18]  He is a fisher of men, and, being omniscient, the Duke knows the proper bait.  Angelo ruefully muses (2.3.383-4), “Oh cunning enemy, that to catch a Saint / With Saints dost bait thy hooke….”  Angelo is the biggest fish landed in Act 5; but, as in the last chapter of the gospel of John, the Duke ultimately succeeds in catching every sinful human being in the unbroken net of scripture.  Some scholars have mistakenly described the Duke as a Machiavellian figure: a ruthless power-monger who manipulates his subjects for his own amoral ends.  Yet if the Duke is a dark political ubermensch, beyond good and evil, it is hard to understand why he would care about the sexual transgressions of his subjects in the first act, or why he would forgive their sins in the third act, or why he would commute their punishments in the fifth.  The interpretation of the Duke as a Machiavellian is glaringly inadequate.  

     Friar Ludowick, who is the Duke disguised as an itinerant preacher, is Jesus.[19]  He is transcendent grace made immanent.  His name means “famous warrior”, and his loving struggle against sin is ultimately victorious over “the Beast”.  Pulling Leviathan out with a hook fully justifies his fame.  He spends much of his time telling people to repent their sins and prepare for judgement, using “craft against vice” (3.1.531) to thwart those who would slander the Duke or debauch religion for base political ends.  He is the prophet of a spiritual revival, affirming the Duke’s moral law but forgiving sins and combining mercy with judgement.  Before Angelo’s confession in Act 5, the Friar describes himself to Isabella as Angelo’s “confessor” (3.1.169).  This irony is true, strictly speaking, because sooner or later God is everyone’s confessor, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not.  The Friar’s kingdom is not of this world, which is why he says in 3.2.473-6 that he is “not of this Countrie” but “…I am a brother / Of gracious order, late come from the Sea / In speciall business from his Holinesse.”  Comforting the afflicted, revealing true human nature and rescuing sinners from their depravity is the Friar’s “special business”.

     Angelo, Isabella’s antagonist, is a fallen angel.  His original sin is Pride, which goeth before a fall.  As Isabella describes him (2.2.119-20), “… man, proud man / Dresst in a little briefe authoritie…”.  He seems to be a man of moral perfection and self sufficiency, but he knows he is proud.  He acknowledges his secret transgressions when he muses, “…my gravity, / Wherein, let no man hear me, I take pride” (2.4.9-10).  Lucio, emphasizing Angelo’s attempt to stifle his carnal impulses in 1.4.57-61, describes him as “… a man, whose blood / Is very snow-broth, one, who never feeles / The wanton stings, and motions of sence: / But doth rebate, and blunt his natural edge / With profits of the minde; Studie, and fast.”  Surprised by his lust for Isabella, Angelo wonders, “What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?” (2.2.176) because he only imperfectly knows himself.  He initially attempts to deny his sinful nature as an ordinary human being.  Isabella stirs no sympathy in him when she says, “… goe to your bosome, / Knock there, and aske your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault; If it confesse / A natural guiltinesse, such as his, / Let not sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life. (2.2.138-143).  Angelo moves in a downward spiral from one deadly sin to another until he becomes the demonic inverse of a good ruler.  Isabella says of him (3.1.88-92), “This outward sainted Deputie…is yet a divill, / His filth within being cast….”  This is derived from Matthew 23:27-8: “Ye are like unto whited sepulchers which appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  Even so ye outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”

     Angelo and Lucio, the two most conspicuously sinful characters in the play, indicate their spiritual state by regularly mangling scripture both in letter and spirit.  When Escalus asks Angelo to show mercy on Claudio because he has faced temptation from similar lustful impulses, Angelo retorts (2.1.17-8), “’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus / Another thing to fall.”  His spiritual pride directly contradicts the words of Jesus.  As it is written in Matthew 5: 27, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”  Angelo then develops his merciless pharisaical legalism in contrast to Escalus’ emphasis on the ubiquity of sin and the justice in compassion (2.1. 27-30).  He says, “You may not so extenuate his offense / For I may have such faults; but rather tell me, / When I that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine owne judgement pattern out my death.”  In the end, Angelo gets what he asked for, as it is written in Luke 19:22, “Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant.”

     Angelo appears to be a virtuous man, but in reality he contains within his soul the germ of every evil.  When he has his assignation with Marianna in darkness and silence, he is symbolically rejecting the Light and the Word.  The Duke obliquely tells Angelo that he is making an example of him to shed “light” on the human condition.  As he says in deputizing Angelo just before leaving, “Heaven [God?] doth with us, as we, with Torches doe, / Not light them for themselves…” (1.1.33-4).  This is a reference to Luke 8:16, and 11:33 as well as to Matthew 5:15: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”  The thematic conflict between light and darkness which pervades Measure for Measure runs parallel the related conflicts between truth and falsehood, being and seeming, reality and reputation, soul and body, spirit and flesh, love and lust, grace and law.

     As Angelo says just before he is exposed to judgement, “Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, / nothing goes right” (4.4.31-2).  He believes himself to be more than human and ends up being less, bestial and sinful, corrupt and corrupting.  When the opportunity arose, Angelo presumed to take the place of God, ruthlessly dispensing law without justice.  Angelo’s fate is patterned out in Romans  2:1-3: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.  But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.  And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?”  Angelo symbolizes the State attempting to profane Religion.  His flawed self-knowledge runs its course until he encounters a righteous Judge in Act 5, when he confronts his true nature and asks of the Duke the wages of sin.[20]  Angelo begins as a concealed Pharisee and ends exposed and shamed as a hypocrite.  He embodies the Letter of the Law, which giveth death.

     The character of Angelo is developed with a special reference to coins and the stamping of images on metal: an “Angel” was a ten shilling coin.[21]  This cleverly elaborates the parable found in all three Synoptics about spiritual and political duties. [22]  In Mark 12:16-7, Jesus holds up a coin and asks, “… Whose is this image and superscription?  And they said unto him, Caesar’s.  And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Like all human beings, Angelo is made in God’s image.[23]  However, the base metal of human nature is inadequate to bear such engraving.  In 1.1.17, the Duke asks Escalus regarding Angelo, “What figure of us think you, he will beare?”  If Escalus had read Romans 1:23-4, he would know the answer.  Sinful human beings “… changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man….  Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts….”  The metal and coin symbolism keeps returning to Angelo like an unlucky penny.

     Before accepting the Duke’s commission, Angelo says in 1.1.49-51, “Let there be some more test, made of my mettle / Before so noble, and so great a figure/ be stamp’t upon it.”  It is important to remember that in Shakespeare’s time, the spelling of English had not yet been standardized.  In this line, the word “mettle” means “personal qualities, abilities and character”, as it does for us; but for Shakespeare, it also meant “metal”, the substance from which coins are “stamped”.  This brilliant use of multiple meanings to reinforce the symbolism of sustained Biblical references is an extraordinary poetic juggling act that extends throughout the play.  Desperate for help, in 1.2.179, Claudio asks Lucio to persuade his sister Isabella to ask clemency from Angelo, saying, “… bid her selfe assay him.”  The extravagant variety of relevant meanings for “assay” is most impressive.  It is at least a quadruple entendre.  According to the OED, “assay” means, among other things, “to try with temptations”, “to assail with words, arguments or love-proposals”, “to test the mettle of (anyone) in a fight”, and of course, “to evaluate the quality of metals”.  All of these apply to her speech toward Angelo.

     Angelo recognizes his fault in 2.4.42-50, but cannot control his lust because of his Pauline “bondage of the will”.  He states that “it were as good / To pardon him that hath from nature stolne /A man already made, as to remit, / Their sawcie sweetnes that do coyne heavens Image / In stamps that are forbid: ‘tis all as easie / Falsely to take away a life true made, As to put mettle in restrained meanes /To make a false one.”  Angelo describes fornication as the counterfeit coining of God’s image in the womb, and the generation of illegitimate children is as blameworthy as murder, a sin which he will also attempt to commit against Claudio.  As the Duke says of Angelo (3.1.256), “the corrupt Deputy [will be] scaled.”  Like another Biblical ruler, Angelo is assayed and comes up short.  When “scaled”, he is “weighed in balance and found wanting”.[24]

     Isabella, the pure and resolute novice nun who asks mercy for her brother, refuses to succumb to seduction, yet intercedes for Angelo and spares him, is the Christian church.  Her argument with Angelo is a personified conflict between grace and law.  She is one of Shakespeare’s most successful female characters, considerably more interesting than Ophelia and as intransigent as Lady Macbeth but without the moral taint.  Isabella represents the Spirit of the Law which giveth life.  Her moral flaw is a minor lapse into unforgiving anger in (4.3.117) when the Duke tells her that Angelo has betrayed his promise and had Claudio executed.  Enraged, she says, “O, I wil to him and plucke out his eies!” which is a tortured misuse of Matthew 18:9: “If thine eye cause thee to offend, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.”  Although Isabella ultimately relents, she is not an apologist for transgression, but rather recognizes that all are sinners and all need Christian charity; thus she is willing to extend to Angelo the mercy she believes that he denied her brother.  She is tested but ultimately forgives those who trespass against her.

     Isabella can also be seen as Lady Wisdom from the book of Proverbs, described as the consort of God.[25]  Like the Church as it is described in the book of Revelation, she is the Bride of Christ, which is why she marries the Duke at the end of the play/world.[26]  She is symbolically accurate when she says to Lucio in 1.5.38, “… you doe blaspheme the good in mocking me.”  The name Isabella ultimately has Hebrew origins.  It means “consecrated to God”.  This is not accidental.

     The inability of many contemporary critics to comprehend Isabella’s motivations reveals literary studies at its most provincial.  Some critics have been so unable to sympathize with Isabella’s motives that they have represented her as being cold, priggish, heartless, hypocritical.  This is a simple and serious failure of historical knowledge and literary imagination.  Isabella’s strict devotion to her chastity is essential to the plot, symbolism and character development in Measure for Measure.  It is Isabella’s inflexible morality that makes her a proper foil to Angelo, allowing both characters to be developed and psychic depths to be explored.  As she defies him, Angelo reveals progressively more depravity.  Isabella’s resolute purity inflames Angelo, and profound perversity boils up from deep in his psyche.  He wishes simultaneously to destroy and possess Isabella’s purity. 

     Isabella insists (2.4.100-104) that she is willing to accept martyrdom rather than yield.  She adamantly says, “were I under the tearmes of death, / Th’impression of keene whips I’ld wear as Rubies, / And strip my selfe to death as to a bed / That longing have bin sicke for, ere I’ld yield / My body up to shame.”  Isabella’s chastity puts intolerable emotional pressure on Angelo, and his suppressed psychic tendencies become manifest.  We watch him spiritually implode while pushed to authority beyond his capacity.  Angelo recognizes in his own counterfeit piety the mirror image of Isabella’s genuine devotion.  Moreover, Angelo secretly likes cruelty and finds pain arousing.  Isabella’s bloody retort brings to the surface Angelo’s suppressed sexual perversity.  While the Duke was present, his austerity had a sublimated strain of masochism.  With the Duke gone, his sadistic impulses are unconstrained.  He says to Isabella (2.4.161-2), “… now I give my sensuall race, the reine, / Fit thy consent to my sharpe appetite…”.  His appetite is a weapon, sharp and destructive.  When Isabella refuses, Angelo begins with redoubled intensity to coax and wheedle, and finally in fury and frustration threatens to torture her brother to death (2.4.166-8).  Among other things, Shakespeare is acutely suggesting that puritanical hysteria about other people’s sex lives is an overcompensation for the Puritans’ own barely suppressed kinkiness.  Angelo’s perverse liking for pain, his own and others’, is the psychic inverse of Christian agape.  Symbolically, Puritanism is represented as an attempt by depraved politicians to debauch Christianity. 

     Beyond issues of characterization, Isabella’s devotion to her chastity is essential to the plain facts of the story and the allegorical Biblical symbolism as well.  The surprisingly common critical dismissal of her motives amounts to the inability to seriously believe that there were (and are) people who accept moral restraints on sexual behavior and genuinely believe in a future state of rewards and punishments.  If these two assumptions are accepted, Isabella’s refusal of Angelo’s proposition, even at the cost of her brother’s life, makes perfectly good sense.  As Paul says in Romans 3:18 of those “that do evil that good may come,” their “damnation is just”.  Isabella would be damned for her sin and Claudio, because he abetted her transgression, would be damned as well (not to mention Angelo).  As Isabella says, “Better it were a brother dide at once, / Than that a sister, by redeeming him / Should die forever (2.4.106-9).  Physical death is inevitable for Claudio and Isabella, but the much greater evil of damnation is not.  Shakespeare lucidly anticipated criticism from the lame spiritual equals of Claudio.  He changed the plot of Measure for Measure from its sources, not only so that the heroine is a nun who refuses to yield to seduction but also by organizing the plot so that supernatural morality and earthly prudence are both on her side.

     Apart from divine judgement, Isabella is faced with a straightforward prudential calculation.  The promised swap of secret sex for clemency toward Claudio is a contract that is unenforceable.  Why should Isabella believe the promise of Angelo, given his evident depravity?  Why would a hypocritical lecher who enjoys pain and cruelty not be a fraud and a murderer as well?  Sin hunts in packs.  If Angelo changes his mind and refuses clemency to Claudio, no one can stop him from executing one or both of them to protect himself and cover his crime.  When this happens, Isabella and Claudio are damned as well as doomed.  The execution of Claudio is in fact a necessary exercise of Machiavellian prudence, as Angelo acknowledges (4.5.26-30).  After his false assignation with Marianna in the place of Isabella, Angelo instantly double-crosses Isabella and orders Claudio killed, anyway.  Angelo, not the Duke, is the Machiavellian figure in the play.  It is only by maintaining strict chastity that Isabella can save Claudio, save herself and, most ironically, save Angelo, since it is she who intercedes for him in Act 5.  Isabella’s resolution and the circumstances of the plot resonate with Psalm 119:92: “Unless thy law had been my delight, I should then have perished in mine affliction.”

     In addition, those critics who have objected to Isabella’s efforts to reconcile Marianna to the bed switch with Angelo have failed to appreciate the Biblical sources of the bed switch in Genesis.  Those critics who have taken Isabella to task for her false claim that Angelo debauched her in Act 5 are equally mistaken.  The Bible justifies deception for godly purposes and the examples of divinely sanctioned deception in the Bible are too numerous to list.[27]  The moral righteousness of godly deception was also codified in Canon law in the maxim: “fragenti fidem, fides frangatur eidem,” which means “with him who has broken faith, faith may be broken.”[28]  Angelo has broken faith with both God and man.  Isabella’s deceptions are fully justified, and she is allied with the Friar because she is the most righteous of the human characters in the play.

     Lucio is Lucifer, the bringer of light.  He is the Friar’s adversary, a blasphemer, tempter, seducer, and perjurer.  It is he who arranges the meeting between Isabella and Angelo, encouraging her with artful stage whispers about the best means to upset his moral equilibrium with her unknowing temptation.  Ironically, Lucio is the unintentional bringer of light, because it is he who unmasks the Duke/Friar in the final scene.  Like so many devils, he is simultaneously attractive and repulsive, and he is somewhat too clever for his own good.  He is selfish, loveless and habitually leads others into sin, but he also has a roguish wit and sharp tongue which more often than not betrays him.  He is the also funniest character in the play because he speaks without understanding the import of his revelations.  Like Milton’s Satan, Lucio has the best lines in the work, but in Measure for Measure he is comic rather than tragic because of the limitations of his understanding.  While addressing one of his comrades in sin, Lucio addresses all of Measure for Measure’s auditors and readers.  He uncomprehendingly states the main theme of the play: “Grace, is Grace, despight of all controversie; / as, for example, Thou thy selfe / art a wicked villaine, despight of all Grace” (1.2.24-6).  His poetic description of the inscrutable Duke as “the olde fantastical Duke of darke corners” (4.3.153-4) is much more accurate than he imagines.  Throughout the play, the Duke is present, despite the fact that people believe him absent; and when people imagine that they are having private conversations, the Duke always overhears.  As the Friar says to Lucio when he slanders/blasphemes the Duke to his face (3.1.413-4), “You know not what you speake.”


     Like Angelo, Lucio makes revealing inversions of scripture, particularly while slandering the Duke in his conversations with the Friar.  Like his other slanders about the vice and folly of the Duke, he is utterly mistaken when he says (3.1.434-5), “The Duke yet would / have darke deeds darklie answered; hee would never / bring them to light.”  Scripture indicates otherwise.  It is written in John 3:19 that “men loved darkness rather than light… because their deeds were evil.”  The Duke is the light of the world, and if Lucio knew the Duke or the Bible better, he would know not to make such hasty judgements.  It is written in 1 Corinthians 4:5,  “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God.”  Lucio’s mistake ironically foreshadows the final judgement in Act 5, derived from Luke 12:1-12: “… Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.   For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.   Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

     Marianna’s name means “bitter grace”.  She is meant to further the symbolism and allegorical plot rather than to be a fully rendered character, which is why she behaves in so improbable a fashion.  Her furtive midnight assignation in the garden with Angelo is a dark parody of the garden of divine love in the Song of Solomon 6:2.  The story of her bed switch is lifted from the story of Tamar in Genesis.  On account of a fraudulently abrogated marriage contract, Tamar disguises herself as a whore and is impregnated by Judah.  When his iniquity comes to light, Judah says correctly, “She has been more righteous than I.”[29]  The crucial point is that Tamar and Judah were destined by Providence to be ancestors of King David.  David, like Angelo, is God’s chosen magistrate, and he also has a weakness for women which causes him to misuse his authority in killing Uriah, provoking God’s retribution.[30]  Even more striking is the fact that David’s line leads to Jesus.  The story of Tamar suggests that sexual transgression is contained within God’s providential plan for redemption, and is in fact found the lineage of Jesus himself: it was not the Puritan’s favorite Bible story.  Shakespeare centers the play around Tamar’s divinely approved bed trick and throws it right in their face.

     Much the same is true of Escalus, the wise, aged deputy appointed by the Duke to assist Angelo.  His name is a play on Aeschylus, the great Greek tragedian known for his concern with problems of moral and political order.  When he encounters the Friar (3.1.488-509), Escalus’ description of the Duke is entirely the opposite of Lucio’s, and the old man is presented as humble, reverent and judicious.  Escalus spends much of the play reminding Angelo that human frailty is ubiquitous, that mistakes in the administration of justice are inevitable, and that overweening pride is particularly improper to a magistrate.  Old Escalus is wise enough to extend mercy where it is possible, but he cannot teach this to Angelo because the latter’s proud self-sufficiency disdains instruction.  Puritans believed that they had little to learn from ancient pagan wisdom, and Shakespeare will not grant Angelo forgiveness until he learns the value of Escalus’ insight.  In Act 5, when he finally recognizes that the limitations intrinsic to human nature apply to him, Angelo, chastened, apologizes to Escalus (5.1.477-80).  This comic resolution, Angelo contrite and Escalus raised to a higher status by the Duke, allows Shakespeare to vindicate tragedy to disapproving Puritans.  Escalus is rendered inoffensive to Christianity when it is shown that the insights of tragedy, properly subordinated to Christian doctrine, are not necessarily in conflict with Christian morals and evil does not necessarily lead to death without redemption.

     The minor characters of Measure for Measure also have symbolic significance.  Claudio and Julietta, the couple whose original transgression of the Duke’s laws sets the play in motion, are analogous to Adam and Eve.  When Julietta repents her sins to the Friar in 2.3 and the Friar blesses her, she is the woman taken in adultery, accused under the old law but forgiven by Jesus.[31]  Claudio, whose name means “lame”, lacks the spiritual strength of Isabella.  Not only is he given to fornication, he is so scared of his own death that he is willing to pimp his sister to save his life.  Claudio, lamed by lust, is also paralyzed by fear.  He is forced by the Friar to recognize that all human life carries with it a death sentence, and like the paralyzed man in the miracle, Claudio the lame is cured by the word of God.  Jesus says in Mark 2:9, “Take up thy bed and walk,” and later in the play, the Friar says, “Patterne in himselfe to know, / Grace to stand, and Vertue, go” (3.1.517-8).  Claudio loses faith and backslides after the Friar offers spiritual help, and in trying to save his life he suffers spiritual death.  As it is written in Matthew 6:25, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall gain it.”  Through the Friar’s head switch, in the course of the play Claudio appears to die physically, but he is revived when the Friar contrives to have him restored to life in four days (4.2. 159-60) as Jesus did with Lazarus.[32]

     The nameless but kindly Provost, who is rewarded because he is sworn to the Duke rather than the deputy (4.2.180), bears comparison with the faithful centurion of Matthew 8:9.  The reward to the Provost (5.1.530-1) can be found in Matthew 25:21.  The unrepentant murderer Barnardine, who is spared by the goodness of the Friar rather than for any merit of his own, also has a Biblical antecedent.  He should be compared with Barabbas.[33]  Before the concluding scene, the Friar disappears from view, and he leaves Isabella (the church) in the hands of Friar Peter, who bears a striking resemblance to Saint Peter as he guides the church toward the final Judgement (4.2.211).  Friar Thomas, who has so many questions for the Duke in Act 1, is a doubting Thomas.[34]  Except for the Duke/Friar, no character is completely evil or completely good in Measure for Measure.  Even Mistress Overdone and Pompey, the bawds who were treated leniently by Escalus, turned out to have redeeming qualities.  They have been providing for the bastard child of Lucio and Kate Keepdown, after Lucio had denied paternity (3.2.202).

     Although flawed human law has let Lucio escape punishment, the Duke is omniscient and he knows what human beings cannot, so his justice and judgement are perfect.  In (3.1.385-6), Lucio, in the process of blaspheming the Duke, tells the Friar, “Oh Sir, you are deceiv’d.”  The Friar replies with deadpan ironic simplicity, “’Tis not possible.”  The Duke knows in advance that Angelo will receive from him “letters of strange tenor” (4.2.197); and of course the New Testament contains many divinely inspired letters which are hard to reconcile, such as the Epistle of James and the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.  Having received the letters in 4.4, Angelo and Escalus are perplexed by the Duke’s writings: as Angelo says, “Every letter he hath writ hath disvouch’d the other” (4.4.1).  The obscurity and contradiction within the writings sent by the Duke make the Bible very difficult to interpret.  All that Angelo and Escalus can piece together is that the Duke will soon return and dispense justice to those wronged in his absence, which naturally makes Angelo very anxious.  The Eschaton approaches, the Apocalypse is coming, and the Duke was thoughtful enough to say so to Escalus.  In an earlier scene, Escalus had asked the Friar, “What newes abroad i’ th’ World?”  The Friar responds, “None, but there is so great a Feavor on goodnesse that the dissolution of it must cure it” (3.1.477-9).  The “it” refers to the dissolution of the world, not the fever.  Sin is here to stay.

     Throughout Measure for Measure, the sinful human condition is referred to as a sickness, a “fever” for which there is no earthly cure.  The only mortality in Measure for Measure comes from this fever.  Because of an accident provided by “heaven” (read God: 4.3.74), the notorious pirate Ragozine dies of this “fever” (4.3.67-8) and he provides the head-for-head switch in Act 5.  Ragozine may have been Lucio’s pirate who “razed” one of the Ten Commandments (1.2.7-15).  This mortal fever has only one cure.  The words “remedy”, “cure” and “medicine” are used more than a dozen times in the text of Measure for Measure as we have it, and Barnardine’s liquor is the wrong tonic.  The proper prescription that will “heal” or “mend” the human condition is fidelity to the mercy, charity and humility enjoined by God.  Angelo is critically soul-sick, but his lack of self-knowledge and the delirium of lust prevent him from knowing it.  As Isabella says to Angelo, “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, / And he that might the vantage best have tooke / found out the remedie: How would you be / If he, who is the top of Judgement, should / But judge you, as you are?  O, thinke on that, / And mercy will then breathe within your lips / Like man new made. (2.2.74-79).[35]

     For those who have not undergone spiritual rebirth, beneath the veneer of external virtue lies an inevitable core of internal vice.  Abhorson, the legal killer, tells Pompey the illegal pimp that “Everie true man’s apparell fits your Theef” (4.2.40-44).  Pompey, who has considerable experience with both nakedness and sin, cleverly twists Abhorson statement to suggest that one size fits all, because underneath the true man’s clothes is always found a naked sinner.  He retorts, “If it be too little for your theef, Your true man / thinks it bigge enough. If it bee too bigge for your / Theef your Theef thinks it little enough. So everie true man’s apparel / fits your Theef” (4.2.40-44).  As Lucio (who is as mistaken as it is possible to be) says with unintentional and genuinely funny irony in the final scene, the Friar is “honest in nothing but his clothes.”  “Cucullus non facit monachum,” as he so cleverly puts it.[36]  The Duke explains his deceptive journey to Friar Thomas in 1.4.54 simply by saying that giving authority to Angelo will disclose “what our seemers be.”  Referring obliquely to Angelo, the Friar says in 3.1.525-6, “Oh, what may a man within him hide, / Though angel on the outward side?”  The Friar always apprehends the real virtues and vices of the characters, regardless of the mistakes made by others.  Although the Friar is a true deceiver, he is never truly deceived.[37]  Looking through matter into the spirit, the Friar reads the soul like a book.  As he says in 4.2.153-5, “There is written in your brow, Provost, honesty and constancie.  If I reade it not truly, my ancient skills beguile me.”

     The Friar attempts throughout the play to save human beings from themselves.  He states what the plot reveals, that human nature is inescapably depraved despite the false appearance of moral order: “There is scarse truth enough / alive to make Societies secure, but Securitie enough to / make fellowships accurst: Much upon this riddle runs / the wisedome of the world: This newes is old enough, yet it is everie daies newes” (3.1.482-486).  The old news of human depravity is balanced with the good news that, by the grace of God, moral regeneration is possible.  As St. Paul says in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  Measure for Measure asks the same questions as the Apostle in Romans 14:10: “But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”  Measure for Measure gives the same answer as Romans 14:13: “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.”

     Despite the low comedy of the bawds in the subplot, the structural simplicity of Measure for Measure is striking.  The lawgiver leaves, the magistrate misuses his delegated authority, the ruler returns and judges.  This stark simplicity is apt because, like the Bible, Measure for Measure is a trinitarian work.  Like the history of the world as it is represented in the gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, there are three phases in Measure for Measure.  These segments correspond to the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Ghost.  This providential process culminates in the final judgement of the one righteous God.  The age of YHWH lasts from 1.1 to the end of 2.2.  YHWH enacts strict moral laws for his people, who disobey nonetheless.  YHWH leaves, authorizes Angelo to rule in his stead, and promises to send writings in his absence.  This is the Age of Mosaic law, as Claudio (1.3.5-9) tells us.  “Thus can the demy-god, (Authority) / Make us pay downe, for our offense, by waight. / The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will; / On whom it will not, (soe); yet still ‘tis just.”  The penultimate line originally made reference to the words not of “heaven” but of “God”, and the audience would have been familiar with the passage of scripture from which this line was lifted.  In the Epistle of Paul to the Romans 9:15 , it is written, “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

     The age of Jesus begins in 2.3 and continues until 4.3.  The Duke (YHWH) returns disguised as a Friar (Jesus) to comfort the afflicted and release humanity from its bondage to sin.  As soon as he arrives, he says to the Provost (2.3.2-8): ”Bound by my charity and my blest order, / I come to visite the afflicted spirits / Here in the prison: doe me the common right / To let me see them, and to make me know / The nature of their crimes, that I may minister to them accordingly.“  Not all of the prisoners will accept the comfort offered by Jesus, but those who repent their sins are blessed with salvation.  As it is written in 1 Peter 3:19-20, “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometimes were disobedient….”  The Friar tests Julietta to see if she truly repents her sins and, finding her sincerely contrite, says (2.3.39), “Grace goe with you.  Benedicte.”  Claudio accepts the Friar’s spiritual ministrations but loses faith when faced with death, and Barnardine adamantly refuses the Friar’s mercy altogether.  Yet the Friar does not condemn those that refuse his offer of salvation, as Jesus said in John 12:47: “… if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”  After Jesus preaches his message of salvation, He rejoins the Father and the Holy Ghost.  The next line in the gospel (John 12:48) is, “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him on the last day.”

     The transition from the age of the Son to the age of the Holy Spirit begins in 4.3.  As the Bible states in Revelation 20:10, “… the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”  The Spirit is about to be revealed.  This is signaled in 4.3.45, when Abhorson the executioner says to Barnardine, “Looke you heere sir, here comes your ghostly father.”  The Friar is a ghostly father in the sense of a father confessor, but he is also being recombined with the Father and the Holy Ghost.  The age of the Holy Ghost ends and the unity in the Trinity is completed just before the final judgement in Act 5.  Shakespeare indicates this with a delightful play on the word “combined” in 4.3.142-3.  The Friar is preparing to leave and gives Isabella a letter for Friar Peter about the Duke’s return, saying, “I am combined by a sacred Vow/ And shall be absent.”  As the OED suggests, “combined” in this case means “bound” or morally obligated by a promise, but it also has the usual meaning, “to unite or join together”.  As one critic has noted, the line means something like “I have promised to join someone else”38  Indeed he has.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are being reunited.  The process of unifying the Trinity and the preparation for the Apocalypse was probably continued in the now fragmentary remains of Act 4.  The four mysterious no-show characters with trumpets may have been the angels of the Apocalypse; or, if they were cavaliers, they may have been the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Or perhaps they were both.  Since their speech and actions seem to have been edited out, one can only speculate.  “Gentle Varrius” may have been the angel that brought Revelation to the evangelist John or perhaps the evangelist John himself; again, it is hard to tell.  What is clear enough is that the age of the Holy Ghost is over by 5.1.128, when the inscrutable Duke (YHWH) describes the unfathomable Friar (himself) as “ghostly”: “A ghostly father belike.  Who knows that Lodowick?”

     Act 5 is taken up by God’s final judgement, which contains several dozen Biblical references, images, borrowings, motifs and analogies.  Corrupt Vienna is Babylon, the profane city.  The Duke’s arrival at the gates of the city parallels Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  Vienna—Babylon, the corrupt City of Man—will be cleansed and transformed into the New Jerusalem, the City of God.  The exchange at the city gates is drawn from the prophet Isaiah 29:18-22 .

And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.  The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.  For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off: That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought.

     Angelo is completely allied with Lucio against the Friar and Isabella until these scorners are caught in God’s snare.  Isabella accuses Angelo to the Duke, saying portentously in 5.1 46-7, “truth is truth / To th’end of reckoning.”  Her statement is vindicated directly because the end of reckoning occurs in this scene.  Angelo denies Isabella’s charges, and also accuses her of conspiring with Marianna and the Friar to slander him.

     Characteristically unable to hold his tongue, Lucio makes matters worse by bearing false witness against the Friar, claiming that his own blasphemy against the Duke was uttered by the Friar.  The Duke repeatedly orders him to hold his tongue, but Lucio continues his ribald commentary, not knowing that he is testifying against himself in the presence of a hanging judge.  Escalus ironically asks the hooded Friar (5.1.289), “Know you where you are?”  Yes, in fact, He is the only one present who does know where he is: He is in a court of imperfect human law, unjustly accused, preparing to sweep false appearances away in a divine court of equity.  They do not know where they are.  The gospel is about to be vindicated, as it is written in John 7:24: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”   Not realizing his peril, Angelo says with ironic prescience (5.1 235-9), “I doe perceive / These poor informall women are no more / But instruments of some higher member / That sets them on.  Let me have my way, my lord, / To find this practise out.”  Lucio and Angelo, allied against the Friar and the supplicant women, convict themselves in public.

     The characters do not know where they are or who they are until Lucio reveals the Friar to be the Duke (5.1.356).  Even Lucio and his mischief have a place in God’s providential plan.  Human self-understanding turns out to be a consequence of God’s revelation of Himself.  Angelo the Pharisee is silenced as in Matthew 22:46.  Only with his earlier self-conception shattered does Angelo recognize the similarity between the Duke and God (5.1.367-70): “O my dread lord / I should be guiltier than my guiltinesse / To thinke I can be undiscearnable, / When I perceive your grace, like powre divine ,/ Hath look’d upon my passes.”  The Duke orders Angelo and Marianna married, and pardons Isabella for her transgressions (5.1.388-9).  The Duke continues his testing of Isabella, stating that her brother is dead.  When the newlyweds return and the Duke condemns Angelo to death, he says: “The very mercy of the law cries out / Most audible, even from his proper tongue, / An Angelo for a Claudio, death for death…”.  This is, of course, a reference to the retributive Mosaic law: Exodus 21:24: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  Distraught at the prospect of losing her husband, Marianna kneels before the Duke, who rejects her appeal for clemency.  Desperate, Marianna asks Isabella to “lend a knee” (5.1.443).  Isabella kneels before the Duke, praying literally and symbolically before the Duke for the pardon of sinful man.  Isabella’s forgiveness goes beyond the old law of retribution.  The intercession of Isabella (the Church) is effective; from this point, on the Duke will remit the punishments that the play’s transgressors would rightfully deserve.  As it is written in Luke 6:38, “Give and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down and shaken together, and running over….”  The Duke’s mercy overflows.

     The incorrigible criminal Barnardine is pardoned without undergoing a moral transformation.  The Duke’s exceptional generosity is similar to Matthew 5:45, extended “… that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

     Barnardine is left in the hands of Friar Peter, who is to advise him about atonement and the possibility of a new life.  If, as some writers have argued, Shakespeare was a recusant Catholic who coded doctrinal advocacy into his plays, then this may be a symbolic affirmation of the papacy.  The other characters are given new life and reintegrated into society through marriage.  To the delight of Isabella, the Duke produces Claudio, bringing him back from death apparent, symbolic and spiritual.  He will be reunited with the spiritually renewed Julietta in holy matrimony.  The Duke, the one true God, dispenses perfect justice combined with mercy on the condemned sinners.  He is like the infinitely merciful father in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32.  Claudio and Angelo are chastened, but with mildness rather than severity.  In the combination of justice and mercy, punishment and reward are mixed.  The self-knowledge which the characters, especially Angelo, get is a painful lesson.  It hurts their pride because their undeniable shortcomings are made manifest.  The shame of a public confession of sin is ironically what Angelo ordered, not entirely wrongly, for Claudio in 1.2.   The revival and pardon of Claudio allows the revival and pardon of Angelo, which amounts to a reward for the penitent Julietta and the steadfast Marianna and a commutation of sentence for their husbands.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “It is better to marry than to burn.”

     Now that she has passed the tests and forgone the temptations of revenge, Isabella’s mercy is fully allied with divinity.  The Duke proposes marriage to the gracious Isabella (5.1.495), and she silently accepts.  Some critics have interpreted Isabella’s silence as ambiguous or even more perversely as a rejection.  It is nothing of the kind.  “Silence is consent” was a well-established principle of English common law by Shakespeare’s time; indeed, Thomas More had depended upon it a century earlier to save his life from the machinations of Henry VIII.  Everyone in Shakespeare’s audience would have known that unless she actively says no, Isabella passively says yes.  She is described early in the play as having a “speechless dialect” (1.2.181); like Cordelia’s, Isabella’s silence is communicative, even eloquent.  When the Duke proposes to Isabella, “Give me your hand and say you will be mine” (5.1.495), Isabella must at that moment take his hand, accepting his proposal in her “speechless dialect”.  This is the only circumstance in which the Duke’s next line, referring to Claudio—“He is my brother too…” (5.1496)—can possibly make sense.

     In Matthew 12:36, it is written,  “… every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”  Measure for Measure ends on a genuinely comic note with the Duke’s judgement upon Lucio’s flippantly blasphemous slanders.  With an ordinary magistrate, this is a serious matter (consider the outcome of slander in Othello).  Since the Duke is divine, Lucio’s transgressions are far more sinister.  He is not only a sexually licentious troublemaker adept at evading human law: he is an unrepentant, blasphemous devil.  It is written in Matthew 12:31,  “All manner of sin and blasphemy will be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.”  Lucio blasphemed against the Duke repeatedly, but in 4.3—the scene in which the Friar becomes “ghostly”—Lucio blasphemes against  the Duke further and admits that he had previously lied to the Duke under oath.  Lucio has fathered an illegitimate child with a prostitute at Mistress Overdone’s establishment, but he falsely denied paternity and evaded responsibility.  The Friar presciently responds (4.3.160), “… you’l answer this one day.”  Act 5 is judgement day, and the Duke orders Lucio married to the bawd, then whipped and hanged.  When Lucio pleads for mercy, the Duke agrees, commuting his execution and whipping.  Lucio’s sole punishment will be a forced marriage to Kate Keepdown, the “Whore of Babylon” mentioned in Revelation.[38]

     While it is clear enough that Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, as the evangelists did the Gospels, with volumes of scripture open at hand, this does not entail the inference that Shakespeare was a Christian believer, orthodox or otherwise.  In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare created a vision of the human condition from Eden to Apocalypse that answered the moral and political criticisms that had been leveled at theatre for centuries.  It is self-consciously moral art intended to deflect Platonic or Augustinian or Calvinist objections to the moral and political influence of drama.  Given the other plays attributed to him, however, it would appear that the Shakespearean fox is not a Miltonic hedgehog.

     Shakespeare was astonishingly multifarious.  He knew the Bible well, but it is not clear to what extent he was committed to religious belief.  The next play he wrote after Measure for Measure was King Lear, a dark and profoundly disturbing tragedy with no hint of divine redemption.  Lear says, “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”—a sentiment which cannot be reconciled with any Christian belief, no matter how heterodox.  Neither Angelo nor Lear nor any other character can be reliably identified with any more than a fraction of Shakespeare’s depth and psychic complexity.  Measure for Measure is awash in Biblical references, but it does not follow that Shakespeare was a Christian, although he may have been.  Rather, he was an astonishingly protean intellect, a conceptual chameleon capable of an infinite variety of conceptual colorings.  He could use Biblical sources for his own purposes, but he was omnivorously capable of digesting anything and using it for his purposes.  It is possible that Shakespeare was a Christian, but neither Measure for Measure nor all his work taken together can provide adequate grounds for insisting upon this, except by a procrustean forcing of scanty evidence which might sustain with equal plausibility claims that he was a royalist, an Anglican, a Catholic, or Francis Bacon.  

     In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare took the Bible as his template in attacking Puritanism, but his moral views were both too complex and too variable to be reduced to some alternative religious formulation.  Regardless of Shakespeare’s personal beliefs, Measure for Measure is one of the greatest achievements in the history of literature, the most intellectually ambitious comedy ever written.  It pushes the comedic form as far as it will go, attempting simultaneously to save art from politics, save theatre from prudery, save religion from fanaticism and save human nature from itself.


[1] All quotes are from the KJV, which postdates Measure for Measure but is most accessible to contemporary readers.  Shakespeare used one of several other possible translations, most likely the Calvinist Geneva Bible of 1560.  See Naseeb Shaheen, The Bible in Shakespeare (Newark, Delaware: U of Delaware P, 1999).

[2] All quotes are taken from Grace Ioppolo, ed. William Shakespeare, Measure, for Measure (New York: Prentice Hall, 1996).

[3] Evil Tenants Mark 12:1-11, Matthew 21:33-43, Luke 20:9-17; Talents Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19: 9-17; Unforgiving Servant Matthew 18:23-35, Unjust Steward Luke 16:1-8

[4] Matthew 7:2-4, See also Luke 6:38, Mark 4:24 .

[5] Shaheen makes the point that the number of direct Biblical quotations in Measure for Measure is not large given the evident profusion of Biblical allusions, but Shaheen’s observation does not take into account the inversions of scripture, nor the symbolism, nor the structure of the plot, all of which inform the Biblical orientation of Measure for Measure.

[6] Ephesians 5:23 , ”For  the husband is the head of the wife”; and 1 Corinthians 11:3, “The head of the woman is the man.”

[7] Quoted in Margot Heinemann, Puritanism and Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1980), 20

[8] This is an oblique reference to Psalm 18:13 , “The Lord also thundereth out of Heaven”; and Job 37:5 “God thundereth marvelously with his voice.”

[9] Gary Taylor and John Jowettt, Shakespeare Reshaped 1606-1623 (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1993), 311, argue that 4.5 and 4.6 are genuine and that only 4.6 is suspicious (because Friar Peter tells Isabella that he has found “a stand most fit” but Isabella makes an entrance in 5.1 nonetheless).  They argue that the scant total of 28 lines in 4.5 and 4.6 creates an “impression of bustling preparations”, but never explain how introducing a squad of irrelevant characters who do nothing, say nothing and mean nothing helps things bustle.  Regardless of whether Ralph Crane’s First Folio edition was derived from foul papers or a prompt book, 4.5 as we have it still makes no sense.


[10] Arthur Sherbo, ed., “Johnson on Shakespeare”, Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. IV (New Haven: Yale U P,  1968), 174.

[11] Quoted in Colin Rice, Ungodly Delights, Puritan Opposition to the Theatre 1576-1633 (Edizioni Del’Orso, Torino, 1997), 61-62.

[12]  Ivo Kamps and Karen Raber, eds. Measure for Measure: Texts and Contexts ( New York : Bedford , 2004), 252.

[13] Catherine Siegel, “Hands off the Hothouses: Shakespeare’s Advice to the King.”  Journal of Popular Culture 20 (1986), 82.

[14] Deborah Kuller Shuger, Political Theologies in Shakespeare’s England: The Sacred and the State in Measure for Measure ( New York : Palgrave/St. Martins, 2001), 30.

[15] Deuteronomy 22:5 “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God”.

[16] Quoted in Colin Rice, Ungodly Delights, 28.

[17] Hans von Balthasar makes the extreme claim that Measure for Measure “is a Christian mystery play, no matter whether the poet intended it as such, no matter how many comic and tragic elements are mixed in with it.” Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. I, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 470.  This essay does not go so far, but does extend the currently unfashionable Biblical interpretations developed by G. Wilson Knight, Roy Battenhouse, F.R. Leavis, and most recently Steven Marx.

[18] Job 41:1

[19] Phillippians 2:7[Jesus] …made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men”.

[20] Romans 6:23.

[21] The money and stamping symbolism is elaborately developed.  Consider 1.1.36-40: “… Spirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues, nor nature never lends / The smallest scruple of her excellence / But like a thrifty goddess, she determines / Herself the glory of a creditor.”

[22] See also Matthew 22:21 and Luke 20:25.

[23] Genesis 1:16.

[24] Daniel 5:27.

[25] Proverbs 8: 2-3, 7-8, 22-35.

[26] Revelation  21:7-9.

[27] 2 Corinthians 6:4-10.

[28] Shuger, Political Theologies, 94.

[29] Genesis 38:26.

[30] 2 Samuel 11, 12.

[31] John 8:7-11.

[32] John 11:32-44.

[33] Matthew 27:16-26.

[34] John 20:26.

[35] This is a reference both to Genesis 2:7, when God “breathed life” into Adam, and Ephesians 4:24 , when Christians are enjoined to “put on the new man”.

[36] 5.1.264, “The hood does not make the monk.”

[37] 1  Corinthians 6: 4-10.

38 W. Bawcutt, ed., Measure for Measure (Oxford U P, 1991), 197.

[38] Revelation 17:1.