Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Symbols


The Convent

The convent of the Poor Clares, seen only in Act 1, is the physical embodiment of Isabella's unworldly ideals. It serves as a haven for those who, like her, desire a strict and uncompromisingly chaste way of life. In real life the order itself was—and continues to be—famously strict, even by the standards of a cloistered religious community. From its establishment in the 13th century, its members were well known for their fasting, extreme poverty, and other penitential practices. Thus when Isabella asks whether the nuns have "no farther privileges" than Francisca has just enumerated, the list of "privileges" in question is likely very short. In the same scene, as if to give readers and viewers a quick demonstration of convent life, Francisca spells out the rules for interacting with men. Addressing Isabella she informs her "you must not speak with men / But in the presence of the Prioress. / Then, if you speak, you must not show your face; / Or if you show your face, you must not speak."

As a novice, Isabella momentarily stands on the threshold of this strict and isolated life. It remains uncertain whether she returns to it after the main action of the play is complete. Even in attempting to pursue such a life, however, Isabella sets herself apart from the ordinary Viennese, who are concerned with pleasure seeking and moneymaking. Moreover, her decision to leave the convent—however briefly—means re-immersing herself in a world she has voluntarily left behind.

The Brothel

At the opposite end of Vienna's moral axis are its brothels, most notably the "house of resort" run by Mistress Overdone. It is too simplistic to pronounce the convent "good" and the brothel "evil." Rather, they embody different value systems. The Poor Clares stand for strictness and discipline; Mistress Overdone and her cohorts rely on laxness of both morals and purse strings. The nuns, like Angelo in the beginning of the play, are fastidious in avoiding any temptation that might jeopardize their honor or virtue. The brothel, in contrast, invites and even solicits contact with the outside world, and its proprietors and patrons mingle freely in Viennese society. They are "promiscuous" in the original Latin sense of the term: indiscriminately mixing. Finally the convent is a place of seriousness and candor where deceptions and even jokes are unwelcome, as Isabella demonstrates when she rebukes Lucio for his punning manner of speech. The brothel's denizens, on the other hand, love a good pun: asked what Claudio has done to merit imprisonment, Pompey Bum curtly answers, "A woman." The brothel crowd also resort to euphemisms and half-truths to disguise the nature of their work, as when Pompey tells the police he is a "tapster" (a bartender). This may technically be true, but it's hardly the most interesting part of Pompey's employment.

Underneath these obvious differences are also some striking similarities. Both the convent and the brothel are "worlds apart" from normal Viennese society, and both are female-dominated spaces within a larger patriarchal society. Pompey's status as a pimp should not lure readers into overestimating his role in Mistress Overdone's establishment: he works for her, not the other way around. In a sense, the brothel even represents a valiant resistance to the Duke's deputies, since its occupants continue in their trade despite Angelo's crackdown on prostitution. That this rebellion is commercially motivated does not diminish its importance in a play in which strict justice and sexual abstinence are the law of the land.

Disguises and Substitutions

Measure for Measure begins and ends with acts of substitution. In the opening scene, the Duke names Angelo as the interim ruler of the city. "In our remove be thou at full ourself," he says, elevating Angelo from a mere deputy to something like an "acting Duke." Angelo will, despite his initial protestations, quickly adjust to the role. The Duke, meanwhile, returns in disguise, pretending to be a harmless friar rather than a powerful lord. He proceeds to exploit this disguise not only to spy on Angelo but to hold clandestine interviews with Claudio, Juliet, and Isabella. None of these characters realize they are face-to-face with the Duke—instead, they believe they are confessing their sins to a Catholic priest. Thus, they open up to him in a way they almost certainly would not if his true identity were known. So does the rakish Lucio, who has little respect for the friar's role. In Act 5, the Duke dramatically casts off his disguise and takes back power from Angelo, who goes from interim ruler to death-row prisoner.

In between, the play's plot is punctuated by two notable moments, traditionally known as the "bed trick" and the "head trick." As these terms suggest, the two episodes involve a kind of ruse that should be easy to spot but is overlooked by the targets of the deception. Some of the play's hard-won humor comes from the sheer audacity of the "tricks," which are as transparent to the audience as Clark Kent "transforming" into Superman. In the "bed trick," Mariana agrees to take Isabella's place (Act 4, Scene 1) during her tryst with Angelo. This might seem a risky gambit, but it pays off when Angelo comes to believe he really has slept with Isabella (Act 4, Scene 4). Then, in the "head trick" (Act 4, Scene 3), the head of the dead pirate Ragozine is substituted for that of Claudio. The resemblance is not necessarily a good one: Ragozine is about Claudio's age and has a "beard and head / Just of [Claudio's] color." Nonetheless, Angelo is again unable to tell the difference, as evidenced by his guilty speech about killing Claudio in Act 4, Scene 4. Together, the two "tricks" make Angelo less intimidating and even somewhat pitiable, since he unknowingly provides the Duke with evidence of his own malfeasance.

But why is Angelo seemingly so easy to dupe in the first place? One answer is that he needs to be, if the play is to have a happy ending. Once Angelo assumes the ducal throne in Act 1, the odds are stacked against the ordinary Viennese who must evade or withstand the city's harsh justice. If, in addition to having near-absolute power, Angelo were shrewd enough to see through the Duke's deceptions, there wouldn't be much of a play. The villain would win, or perhaps escape, and the final reckoning with justice would be denied. On the level of character, Angelo's gullibility also reflects his inflexible, rule-bound nature—the same trait that makes him so remorseless in dispensing justice and so desperate when he breaks his own laws. The "tricks," simplistic as they are, prey upon this aspect of Angelo's character: he does not expect to be challenged or undermined. Firmly convinced of his own moral and political authority, he is unable to notice when others are maneuvering behind his back.

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