Measure for Measure and punishment

John Mullan considers how Measure for Measure explores ideas about justice, mercy and punishment.

The audiences for whom Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure were used to seeing punishments inflicted on offenders against the law. In major towns and cities, executions were public entertainments. The pillory and the stocks were used to display and humiliate criminals. Whippings for certain offences, including sexual misdemeanours, were commonplace and were public. Even the brandings that were an occasional substitute for capital punishment were designed to display the cruel consequences of a person’s offences to others. Church courts had the power to investigate and punish sexual transgressions, including adultery and fathering or giving birth to a bastard. Punishment for lesser offences might involve a person announcing their sins and their penitence in church, in front of the congregation.

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Five rioters who protested about poor conditions in London were hung, drawn and quartered on Tower Hill.

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The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

The Anatomy of Abuses by Philip Stubbes, 1583

Stubbes believed that those guilty of ‘Whordome, Adulterie, Incest, or Fornication’ should be punished by death, or publically shamed by branding ‘with a hott Iron’.

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The inconsistency of prosecutions would also have been recognisable to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Puritan moralists sometimes campaigned to have the punishments that were available to the authorities used more systematically in crackdowns on vice. Such a crackdown takes place in Measure for Measure, where Angelo’s imposition of the law is felt to be a sharp alteration from the Duke’s regime. When Pompey tells the bawd Mistress Overdone of the proposed destruction of all bawdy houses, she exclaims ‘Why, here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth!’ (1.2.104–05). The Duke speaks of ‘strict statutes and most biting laws’ (1.3.19) that he has allowed to go unused. Their existence seems common knowledge. As Claudio is arrested he wonders why the Duke’s deputy has imposed penalties that have always existed in theory, but that have, for many years, ‘like unscoured armour, hung by the wall’ (1.2.167). The Duke’s apparent departure from Vienna at the beginning of the play is followed immediately by a scene in which we learn of Claudio’s arrest and the proclamation that all the city’s brothels are to be torn down. Though in the first scene Angelo has shown reluctance to take the power that he is offered, the dramatic impression is of an immediate enactment of those long dormant laws.

17th-century brothel in Nicholas Goodman’s Holland’s Leaguer

17th-century brothel in Nicholas Goodman’s Holland’s Leaguer

Holland’s Leaguer was a notorious London brothel, surrounded by a moat. It was raided in 1631–32, but the prostitutes outwitted the soldiers by luring them onto the drawbridge and plunging them into the water below.

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Yet the Vienna of Measure for Measure is not early 17th-century England, even if its lowlife scenes might as well be set in London. While sexual incontinence was denounced by Christian moralists in Shakespeare’s England, there was no such law as that by which Claudio is sentenced to death. By the standards of his day, Shakespeare makes Claudio’s offence forgivable: he has slept with Julietta ‘upon a true contract’ and regards her as his ‘wife’ (1.2.145–47). Even the rigorously virtuous Isabella, when she first finds out what has happened, exclaims ‘O let him marry her!’ (1.4.48) – as if this will make things right. Later in the play the disguised Duke tells Mariana that it is ‘no sin’ for her to go to bed with Angelo because ‘He is your husband on a pre-contract’ (4.1.71–72). In Shakespeare’s day it was conventional for a couple to take each other as man and wife well before the confirmation of a church ceremony. Such a private, sexually consummated, agreement had legal force. We should not assume that the first audiences of Measure for Measure would have been less forgiving of Claudio than we might be.

A Treatise of Spousals by Henry Swinburne, 1686

A Treatise of Spousals by Henry Swinburne, 1686

A lawyer explains the knotty question of marital pre-contracts. Couples like Claudio and Julietta could be legally wed by making a private agreement without a priest.

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Mercy is obviously valued. In a comic subplot that invariably brings the relief of laughter when the play is staged, the impenitent murderer Barnardine, whose execution was to have suited the Duke’s plan to save Claudio, is reprieved because he drunkenly declares himself unready for death. Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have doubted the justice of capital punishment for murder, yet the dramatist invites his audience to relish this sinner’s escape from the axe. Yet easy tolerance is no way out. The nether world of Vienna, in which the likes of Pompey and Mistress Overdone make their sordid living from latching on to men’s lustfulness, is a dark place. Lucio, who cheerfully endorses lechery, voices a cynicism that is hardly salutary. When he first meets Isabella, who is on the very threshold of the nunnery, he greets her with ‘Hail virgin, if you be’ (1.4.16) – as if chastity were a ludicrous fiction. The actor playing Isabella’s part must flinch, and we flinch too.

View of Vienna in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

View of Vienna in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

A hand-coloured view of 16th-century Vienna.

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Punishment is important in two ways in the play: first, as a power of the state, designed to curb the unruly passions of its people; second, as the fate of Christians who offend against the moral rules of their religion. In the early scenes, Angelo speaks as if these two reasons for punishing criminals are identical: the harsh justice that he dispenses is necessary because it is God’s law as well as Vienna’s. The play makes compelling psychological drama of the insight that those who are righteously keen to punish surely have something dark in themselves. As King Lear says to the beadle he imagines whipping a whore, ‘Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind / For which thou whip’st her’ (4.6.162–63). Angelo, the man who ‘scarce confesses / That his blood flows’ (1.3.51–52), punishes others out of a terror for what he might find in himself. He also likes things simple. He deals ruthlessly with Claudio, but faced by the malapropism-filled testimonies of Elbow, Pompey and Froth, he walks away, unable to extract a clear moral tale from their digressive, endlessly circumstantial assertions.

Broadside ballad on the Master Constable

Broadside ballad on the Master Constable

This humorous broadside ballad portrays the Master Constable as a self-important busy-body, much like Shakespeare’s Elbow.

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Angelo’s opposite is Isabella, but many have noticed that she is also his twin – his fellow absolutist. She too has some extreme attitudes to punishment. There is an unsettling relish in her description of the punishment that she would prefer to the sacrifice of her virginity.

The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame. (2.4.101–04)

She imagines herself as a Christian martyr, and so, in imagination at least, takes a kind of pleasure in being punished.

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines, illustrated by Robert Anning Bell

1901 edition of Anna Jameson's Shakespeare's Heroines

Bell’s drawing shows Isabella wearing a nun’s habit, as part of the order of Poor Clares – the rigorous ‘holy sisterhood’ which she hopes to join at the start of Measure for Measure.

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If only either Angelo or Isabella had known the title of the play. The phrase that Shakespeare used sounds like a harsh kind of justice: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, as the Old Testament (Exodus 21. 24) has it. Yet if we know its source, the title seems devised to invite scepticism about the human right to dispense punishments in God’s name. It is taken from the Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again. (Matthew 7. 1–2, Geneva Bible).

In the course of the play, thanks to the Duke’s manipulation of events, every major character has their judgement chastened.

The Geneva Bible, 1570

The Geneva Bible, 1570

The title of Measure for Measure is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again’.

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The Duke is our guarantee that all will somehow be well, but he spends much of the play convincing others that they will suffer for their misdeeds. He tells Claudio, at some eloquent length, to be ‘absolute for death’ (3.1.5). In a display of theatrical moral outrage, he encourages Elbow to transport Pompey to prison for his ‘filthy’ offences. In both cases, he is still disguised as a friar. When he returns as himself in the final Act, he still acts a part and starts handing out punishments to the innocent. He appears to have Isabella arrested for speaking out against Angelo. When Mariana declares the truth about Angelo, he tells his deputy to ‘punish’ her ‘to your height of pleasure’ (5.1.240). He gives Angelo as much rope as he could ever have to hang himself.

At the end, Angelo desires a punishment that he is not given. He has long since, we might say, asked for it: when Escalus suggests that he might show mercy to Claudio because he himself has at some time ‘erred’, his retort is characteristically absolute. ‘When I that censure him do so offend, / Let mine own judgement pattern out my death’ (2.1.29–30). When he is found out, and publicly arraigned, he asks for death. Instead he is given marriage, to the woman he once betrayed. Lucio is sentenced to whipping and hanging – only for the Duke to reveal that this is a bluff, and instead he must marry the whore by whom he has a child. This was the last of Shakespeare’s comedies, and many have thought it hardly comic at all. Comedies usually end by rewarding those who deserve it – and sometimes those who do not. This play ends by exacting punishments, though they are dramatic rather than legal.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Angelo faces his own guilt before the assembled crowd: Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 by Thomas Kirk.

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Even the virtuous must taste the bitter fruit of their virtue. In the extraordinary last scene of the play, the Duke allows Isabella to believe that Claudio has paid the price for her resoluteness. She is tricked into thinking that he has been executed. Like Angelo, who is her twin as well as her opposite, she gets her ‘measure for measure’. ‘More than our brother is our chastity’, she has declared, in a soliloquy that we must suppose heartfelt (2.4.185). She has kept her chastity; she must learn what it might mean to be true to her virtuous word. She too, we might think, is being punished. In a bitter twist that fully tests her love of mercy, she must join Mariana in begging for Angelo’s life, still convinced that he is the man responsible for her brother’s death. She passes the test, of course, but even her final reward has felt to some like a kind of sentence. She is to marry the Duke. Her fate is a kind of justice – having learned what she has learned she cannot become a nun – but it is imposed upon her. ‘Give me your hand,’ says the Duke, ‘and say you will be mine’ (5.1.492). She is given no reply, and, in performance, directors and actors still puzzle over how she should, wordlessly, respond.

Photograph of Ciaran Maddan in Marowitz's adaptation of Measure for Measure, 1975

Photograph of Ciaran Maddan in Marowitz's adaptation of Measure for Measure, 1975

In Marowitz’s radical version, Isabella’s punishment is more extreme because Claudio is actually executed. When she sees severed head, there is an ear-splitting scream.

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  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Professor of English at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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