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Critics continue to debate the precise genre of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, because even at closer inspection it refuses to be neatly classified. To brand it a simple “comedy” would be to overlook the unnerving sense of disquiet at the end of Act V when the Duke proposes to Isabella. Thus, the term “problem play” has become a widely accepted description of the three plays Shakespeare wrote during 1601-1604: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure . Unlike a comedy, problem plays tend to pose numerous questions but leave us with very few satisfactory answers. Recently, however, commentators have resolved to call the play a “tragi-comedy” because of the sinister way in which its “happy ending” is achieved. The Italian Renaissance writer Giraldo Cinthio explained that a tragicomedy may have a resolution, but it will not forsake “the terrible and the compassionable” . Indeed, the theme of “human frailty” is one that Shakespeare explores considerably and honestly.
The most prominent example of individual weakness in Measure for Measure has to be Lord Angelo. But to describe his subsequent downfall as “comic” would be to greatly diminish the dramatic impact of Shakespeare’s play. We know from Act1 Sc1 that Angelo’s “metal” as a ruler has never been put to the “test”; thus it seems unlikely he will succeed in the role. It is the Duke, however, who later reveals Angelo’s crucial weak spot. He privately reveals to the Friar in Act1 Sc3 that the Deputy “scarce confesses/ That his blood flows”, meaning Angelo is afraid of his own sensuality. This is soon reinforced by Lucio, who describes him as “a man whose blood/ Is very snow-broth.” In stark contrast, Lucio embodies the lecherous behavior which has swept through Vienna. Through Lucio, Shakespeare highlights how lechery cannot be fully legislated against: “It is well allied, but it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down” (III.2.97-98). So while Angelo may try to “geld and splay all the youth of Vienna”, his efforts will ultimately be in vain.
Instead, Angelo’s first encounter with Isabella (Act2 Sc2) illustrates how he must change his Puritanical ways and have some compassion for the wretched Claudio. Isabella instructs Angelo to “Go to [his] bosom, Knock there” and see if he can still deny the “natural guiltiness” which all men have experienced. Ironically, this gentle reasoning excites Angelo and he divulges how his “sense breeds with it.” As she leaves, his inherent vulnerability becomes all the more apparent. He puts an ironic twist on Isabella’s “Save your honour” by transferring the emphasis to “From thee.” Thus, in his next soliloquy, he is forced to accept that “Blood, thou art blood” (II.4), as a recognition of his essential humanity. His state of mind has been so affected by Isabella’s presence that it becomes difficult for the audience not to empathise with his “tragic” demise. In a recent production at the Globe, however, the actor playing the role increasingly assumed an almost pantomime cast as “the villain.” His retort of “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (II.4.153) to her threat of “I’ll tell the world aloud/ What man thou art” was accompanied by a disapproving “hiss” from the audience. In general though, Angelo’s plight seems to represent “the terrible” element, rather than the entertaining side of a tragicomedy which Cinthio expressed.
Similarly, the extremity of Isabella’s character means that it might be awkward to portray her comically. While Angelo’s sexual repression is explicit, Isabella’s is far better concealed and tempered. Her self-restriction is implicitly excessive from the outset, when in the nunnery she wishes “a more strict restraint” (I.4.4) than the stringent conventions already enforced. In Act2 Sc4, this suppression of desires seems to manifest itself in a strange outburst directed at Angelo. Isabella graphically describes how she would rather “strip [herself] to death as to a bed” than “yield [her] body up to shame” by sleeping with him. Moreover, her employment of words such as “longing” and the sadistic imagery of “keen whips” appear to betray a deep-seated sexual fantasy within her. In contrast, the internal and external “goodness” (III.1.180) which the Duke, Lucio and Angelo all perceive in Isabella acts as a veil for her own emotional insecurity. It is only with the aid of Lucio’s witty asides in Act2 Sc2 that her inner frailty produces any laughter in the audience. Lucio continually eggs her on in a joint attempt to persuade Angelo not to execute Isabella’s brother, Claudio. His cries of “O, to him, to him, wench!” and “Ay, touch him; there’s the vein” provide a bawdy undertone to Isabella’s pure reasoning. This episode is reminiscent of Claudio’s assertion that Isabella has the power of a “speechless dialect/ Such as move men” (I.2.line174). The ambiguity surrounding her character is thus enhanced and it becomes increasingly complicated to know whether Shakespeare is making a serious point about self-deception, or further highlighting how appearances are not always what they seem. If the two explanations can be said to co-exist, then the role of Isabella remains characteristic of a “problem play” and is of very little comic value.
Lucio is perhaps the only true example of comedy in the play, an indication of how Measure for Measure might be seen to make light of “human frailty.” Not only does he make countless jokes of other peoples’ weaknesses and predicaments, but he also has the ability to poke fun at his own mistakes. As Pompey is being led to prison in Act3 Sc2, Lucio does nothing besides mock his friend’s unfortunate fate. When asked if he will provide Pompey with bail money, Lucio simply dismisses his plea, saying “it is not the wear.” He then instructs him: “Go to kennel, Pompey, go” and gives the scene a farcical feel. Ironically, the crime Pompey has committed (“being a bawd”), is one that Lucio knows a great deal about. Even in regards to more ‘respectable’ friends such as Claudio, Lucio is unable to control his mischievous side. When asked by the Duke why Claudio has been sentenced to death, Lucio uses the obscene innuendo “For filling a bottle with a tun-dish” (III.2.167). But Lucio’s coarse references are most potent when in reference to Lord Angelo. He tells the Duke how Angelo is believed to have been “begot between two stockfishes”, meaning he lacks sexual desire or appeal. Lucio then claims to know for certain that Angelo’s “urine is congealed ice” in order to reinforce the ‘cold-hearted’ and inhumane image of the Deputy. However, this kind of unrelenting slander does not go unnoticed by the disguised Duke and Lucio arguably receives the harshest punishment in Act5. So while we may have laughed with Lucio up until now, there emerges a sense of unease as the Duke passes strict sentence on him. This, coupled with the Duke’s proposal to Isabella, creates an ominous atmosphere which is altogether atypical of a comedy. It is as though the Duke has used the other characters entirely as a means to an end; Lucio becomes his scapegoat for all the social disorder in Vienna, just as Claudio was Angelo’s “jewel.” Isabella, we are therefore led to believe, was the Duke’s intended prize from almost the very beginning. Nonetheless, Lucio lifts the mood in a final humorous retort at his own expense; “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping and hanging” (V.1.520). But even this is somewhat overshadowed by the Duke’s abrupt line: “Slandering a prince deserves it.”
Hence, although the theme of “human frailty” is a source of much comedy in Shakespeare’s play, the Bard also paints a rather bleak picture of human nature. Harold Bloom argues that Measure for Measure goes “beyond all possible limits, past farce, long past satire, almost past irony at its most savage.” Thus, Sean Holmes, the director of a current production of the play, thinks the best performance would leave the audience so moved that they would not applaud the ending. While this is perhaps a little extreme, it highlights how Shakespeare blends elements of comedy and tragedy to generate debate rather than laughter. The play’s central theme; “Cucullus non facit monachum” (V.I.261) – or ‘appearances are not what they seem’ – therefore becomes an ever more important assertion for the genre of the play itself. Behind Measure for Measure’s comedy lie darker truths which simply cannot be ignored.
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