Measure for Measure
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Mariana listens to a boy sing a love-song. The Duke enters with an odd comment about the power of music: “music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good, and good provoke to harm” (IV.i.14-15). (And why does Mariana seem to have known him for some time?) Then Isabella arrives; she and the Duke conspire, discussing the mapping of the event. Isabella has a key and has insisted on complete darkness and that the time be brief so as not to arouse suspicions in a servant that will wait for her. Isabella proposes the scheme to Mariana, who agrees to it, and the Duke assures her it’s all quite proper:
Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all.
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ’tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit. (IV.i.70-74)
However, this insistence raises questions. The Duke is only disguised as a friar: so how is a head of state a religious authority. Riddle me that, Protestant England. In any case, the Duke is pimping, probably less honestly than Pompey, who has been arrested for the crime and is juxtaposed to this scene by appearing next.
Mariana may refer to “married Anne,” Anne Cecil, Oxford’s wife, since both the Vere manor house at Lavenham and Castle Hedingham were moated (Ogburn and Ogburn 334).
Startling first line from the Provost to Pompey! “Come hither, sirrah; can you cut off a man’s head?” (IV.ii.1). Pompey is offered the job of assistant to the executioner in lieu of the shackles and whippings during his prison term. After mutual suspicions between Pompey and Abhorson the executioner (his name a conflation of “abhor” and “whoreson”), the deal is struck.
As will be Claudio’s head and that of another condemned murderer named Barnardine, the Provost informs Claudio. The Duke appears and expects now to witness the arrival of a letter pardoning Claudio, but Angelo’s letter merely recommends an early morning execution. To combat this treachery, the disguised Duke (instead of coming out of hiding) acts on behalf of the Duke to persuade the Provost to send Angelo the head of Barnardine — a prisoner for nine years whom we are assured is subhuman, typically drunk, and unrehabilitatable — instead of Claudio’s. Claudio must be spared for a few more days. And Angelo will have received letters to make him think that the Duke will never return.
Pompey has met many of his old customers in his new job as executioner’s helper: Master Deep-vow, Master Copper-spur, Master Starve-lackey, Master Shoe-tie, Half-can, etc. He calls forth Barnardine for execution, but Barnardine refuses — he’s too hungover. The Duke tries to persuade Barnardine to accept the inevitable, but Barnardine still refuses. The Duke declares him “A creature unprepar’d, unmeet for death; / And to transport him in the mind he is / Were damnable” (IV.iii.67-69). The condemned murderer may be “the most delectable character in Measure for Measure — he who for God knows how long has defied the effort fo the prison authorities to execute him”; he serves as a representative of the underworld in the play: “They are not forever riding the moral high horse. They make no pretensions. They mind their own business, bad as it is, instead of telling, or compelling, other people to mind theirs or to act in their way. It is a relief to find somebody of whom that is true” (Goddard, II 65). “The emblematic role here belongs to the sublime Barnardine, perpetual drunkard and convicted murderer, who speaks only seven or eight sentences in a single scene, yet who can be called the particular comic genius of this authentically outrageous play” (Bloom 358); he “has the wisdom to stay drunk because to be sober in this mad play is to be madder than the maddest” (Bloom 359). “In recent years it has become common to question the Duke’s omniscience and power — after all, he fails to get the prisoner Barnardine to consent to die, in one of the play’s most darkly comic scenes, and thus almost scuttles his own plan” (Garber 585).
Another prisoner, named Ragozine, “a most notorious pirate” (IV.iii.71) who resembles Claudio a tad more, is dead from a fever; his head will do nicely. A letter will be sent to Angelo, asking him to meet the Duke soon outside the city.
Claudio and Barnardine are concealed, and when Isabella arrives, she is perversely led by the disguised Duke to believe that her brother has been killed. “Her instant cry is for revenge as she shrieks: ‘O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!'” (IV.iii.121); “Besides, one is entitled to wonder whther she is more outraged at the death of her brother or at the fact that her sacrificed virtue — which Angelo thought he had — was so little valued by him” (Asimov 646). The disguised Duke tells her that the Duke is returning soon. She should be at the gates in order to help bring all these matters to light. Note the emphasis on “every syllable” and “verity” (IV.iii.128f) (Ogburn and Ogburn 343).
Lastly, Lucio arrives and grieves at Claudio’s death, then hurls more insults at the “absent” Duke, interestingly calling him “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (IV.iii.157) and digging himself a deeper hole. Lucio’s “flippant vilifications” of the Duke may owe something to the Howard/Arundel allegations against Oxford, including the insistence that he will “answer this” (IV.iii.167) (Ogburn and Ogburn 304).
Angelo and Escalus are confused by letters from the Duke, who will arrive at the gates soon, where he will hear of any complaints. Angelo reveals in a soliloquy that he had Claudio executed lest he eventually seek revenge. He momentarily worries that Isabella will create trouble for him but reassures himself that her own shame and her lack of proof will shut her up.
The Duke gives letters to Friar Peter for delivery. The Duke’s friend Varrius arrives and they await other friends: Flavio, Valentius, Rowland, and Crassus. Varrius has no lines, ever, and the friends never appear in the play. And it’s not clear what these letters are. Something’s wrong with the surviving version of the text.
Isabella and Mariana prepare for their statements against Angelo at the gates. The Duke has instructed Isabella to pretend that Angelo was in bed with her; all will turn out all right. Friar Peter escorts the women off.
The bed trick “is, in the nature of such things, a metaphor, rendering the two women for a moment interchangeable. It is a lie that tells the truth” (Garber 574).
“The amount of plotting that the Duke has to do to help the dramatist to bring about his play to a conclusion tends to detach audiences from an action in which so far they have been deeply absorbed; it alspo causes the later part of the play to seem more morally didactic than investigative” (Wells 231).