"Shakespeare's great play of mercy is usually considered one of his unpleasant comedies" (Asimov 635), one of the three most "Problem" plays. Coleridge singled it out as Shakespeare's one "hateful work" (qtd. in Garber 563). Bloom trots out one of his favorite words, "rancid[ity]," several times in connection with this play (Bloom 358, 361, 367, 372) and his assertions of it being a "mad play (359), or better, a "scherzo" (359), fail to illuminate, as does his other repetitive standby, "nihilism/nihilistic" (363, 369, 380). Goddard, noting that the word "authority" occurs in this Shakespeare play more than any other, calls Measure for Measure "one of the most searching studies ever made of the effect of power upon character" (Goddard, II 50). It has the most "moral" title of any of Shakespeare's plays certainly (Goddard, II 58), although perhaps "the title offers a false lead" (Wells 225). Some consider this Shakespeare's "farewell to comedy" (e.g., Bloom 358, Farina 34), but several other plays also could well carry that claim.
It's set in Austria, like the source tale from Cinthio's Hecatommithi: the same collection used for Othello (Asimov 635) and in Burghley's library (Farina 35). Vienna's characters oddly have Italian names (Wells 225).
Abel Lefranc, while arguing for the Earl of Derby as Shakespeare in 1918, discovered that in the early 1580s, Henry III of France, to prepare for one of his occasional monastic retreats, appointed Jerome Angenouste (Angelo) his interim legal administrator. Angenoust immediately condemned to death a Claude Tonart (Claudio) "for the crime of fornication under an archaic statute. Angenoust had recently recently broken off his engagement to a woman deprived of her dowry, being dependent on a brother who went bankrupt" (Farina 36). The woman (Mariana) resided at a "moated grange" near Beaulieu, and the King's favorite retreat was near the chateau Vincennes (Duke Vincentio?) (Farina 36).
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The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, is about to go on leave and speaks with Escalus, an old advisor:
Of government the properties to unfoldIn other words, pontificating about government would make him seem given to blabbing just to hear himself blab, since Escalus, he next explains, is expert enough already. After praising Escalus' wisdom, art, and practice, the Duke illogically calls in Angelo, asking Escalus how worthy a deputy Angelo is likely to be to rule in his place.
Angelo seems humble and polite; "the allegorical name is quite uncommon in Shakespeare" (Garber 570). The Duke speaks of his character, specifically his virtues: "Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, / Not light them for themselves" (I.i.32-33), but to be put to use. Angelo thinks he should be tested further first, but he is appointed ruler in the Duke's absence. The Duke promises to write. Angelo volunteers to escort him part of his way, but the Duke is anxious to be alone, away from the throng.
I'll privily away. I love the people,It is typically pointed out by those who think the play was written this late that King James similarly hated crowds (e.g., Garber 579). Even some Oxfordians consider it a late interpolation (Clark 450-451). But this Duke's "theatrical instinct also reminds us of the Prince of Denmark, though in his fondness for dazzling his audience he is more like Hal" (Goddard, II 52). The Duke's "anonymity" puts us in mind of Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 1005). And this passage may even reflect Elizabeth's state of mind when for the first time in 1581 she experienced public unpopularity due to her Anençon negotiations (Clark 451). Instead of an influx of characters at the start of other plays, in this one "the inner world of the play is realized by subtraction rather than by addition or movement" (Garber 568).
But do not like to stage me to their eyes;
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and aves vehement;
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it. (I.i.67-71)
Escalus and Angelo prepare to review together their individual duties.
Shakespeare seems to have coined the word "sanctimonious" (I.ii.8) (Farina 38) -- a great word. Despite the first few lines here, there will be no further mention of threats of war, the King of Hungary, or the "other dukes" (I.ii.1f) (Asimov 637). If the play was written in the early 1580s, the war may be the papal invasion of Ireland, the sweat is the plague raging in London especially in 1582, and the mention of gallows refers to the executions of some Catholic priests and Campion (Clark 451-452; Ogburn and Ogburn 339). Lucio and two gentlemen slum it, speaking in Elizabethan vulgar prose slang and joking about venereal disease. Mistress Overdone, the local whorehouse's madam, brings news of their friend Claudio being arrested and sentenced to execution for knocking up the young Juliet. A "wave of puritanism is sweeping over Vienna" (Asimov 638), and the new administration is tearing down whorehouses and enforcing sexual morality laws ignored for almost two decades. Also, in 1580, London authorities received permission from Elizabeth and the Privy Council to exile the players and pull down the playhouses and dancing-houses (Clark 452). But Escalus to Pompey (II.i.243f) may resemble Burghley vs. theater; in the play he'll profit from the confiscated land (Ogburn and Ogburn 338). The three men leave to find out more about Claudio.
Mistress Overdone's servant Pompey (a clown figure and pimp) brings the same news about Claudio, but Mistress Overdone says nothing about already knowing (and it seems like news to Lucio in a moment also), so some critics suspect revision confusion here. Mistress Overdone is "almost the double in marital virtue of Chaucer's Wife of Bath.... Overdone! it might be the name of most of the leading characters of the play" (Goddard, II 54). "In his very name, Pompey, can be seen the fallen condition of the play's world" (Garber 574). "We might note that the two kinds of 'nunnery' in Hamlet's bitter taunt are here physically realized upon the same stage" (Garber 575). A play called Pompey had been produced at court in January 1580/81 (Clark 454).
After a further punning interchange between Mistress Overdone and Pompey regarding the destruction of all whorehouses in the suburbs of Vienna, the level-headed Claudio arrives, under guard. Lucio asks him, "whence comes this restraint?" (I.ii.124). "From too much liberty" (I.ii.125) is the paradoxical response. Claudio says,
Thus stands it with me: upon a true contractBut before Juliet's relatives could be won over and the dowry arranged, she became pregnant. Claudio is charged with a crime that has not been prosecuted for "nineteen zodiacs" (I.ii.168). If the play was written in 1581, 19 years ago de Vere had inherited his title and come to court (Clark 454) -- and 14 years since the dissolution of Parliament in 1567 (Ogburn and Ogburn 337). Of course, de Vere was imprisoned when Elizabeth discovered his affair with Anne Vavasour (Ogburn and Ogburn 309-310, 333; Farina 37). Lucio recommends that Claudio send for the Duke, but he's already tried. Claudio instructs Lucio to notify Isabella, Claudio's sister who is about to enter a convent; perhaps she can appeal to Angelo for lenience. Claudio has faith in the persuasive power of her discourse.
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. (I.ii.145-149)
Anderson connects Juliet with Anne Cecil (51).
At the monastery, the Duke explains to Friar Thomas that he needs "secret harbor" (I.iii.4) not because of any love drama. Instead, he has let everyone think he's gone to Poland so that he can make Angelo the "bad cop": the Duke been too lenient with the law "for this fourteen years" (i.iii.21), scofflaws are thriving, and the Duke doesn't think an about-face towards strictness on his part would work: he doesn't want to be a tyrant. He will snoop around in the disguise of a friar. He even has reservations about the integrity of Angelo, wondering if power will change his character. In May of 1581, Sir Gilbert Gerard was appointed Master of the Rolls, who had been involved a decade earlier as Attourney General at the trial and execution of the Duke of Norfolk (Clark 453). Gerard enforced blue laws and old statutes in 1580-81 (Ogburn and Ogburn 337). The elder Ogburns see in Angelo the "unworthy side" both of Elizabeth and of Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 329, cf. 336), and they point out the irony of "Angel O" (Ogburn and Ogburn 331).
The elder Ogburns see the habitually "evasive" Elizabeth behind "the constant shifting of orders for Claudio's death" (I.iii.31ff) (Ogburn and Ogburn 328).
At the Saint Clare convent, Isabella talks with Sister Francisca about welcoming "a more strict restraint" (I.iv.4) in her life. They are interrupted by Lucio, and Francisca sends Isabella to the door since she herself may not speak to men, but isabella is as yet "unsworn" (I.iv.9). Lucio informs Isabella about her brother Claudio. She declares her friendship with Juliet and states logically, "O, let him marry her" (I.iv.49). But Lucio explains that in lieu of the Duke
Governs Lord Angelo, a man whose bloodAngelo seeks to make an example of Claudio regarding this one old law. Isabella must plead with Angelo, but she thinks she will have no influence over him. Lucio insists that "doubts are traitors, / And make us lose the good we oft might win" (I.iv.77-78), and, after all, "when maidens sue, / Men give like gods" (I.iv.80-81). She'll try and will send word to Claudio at night.
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense;
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind: study and fast.
Perhaps Isabella too was inspired by Anne Cecil, the self-martyred aspect (Anderson 220). "But if Claudio has broken a civil law through liberty, Isabella seems to be breaking a natural law through restraint" (Garber 572). The Order of Saint Clare was known as the strictest but it's not enough for Isabella (Garber 572). Lefranc, though, discovered that near the royal chateau at Vincennes was a convent operated by the Order of St. Clare founded by the sister of Saint Louis, Saint Isabelle; "the convent had a scandalous repuation for relaxed discipline" (Farina 36).