Immorality, what's thy offence?: Musing on Shakespeare's Most Moral Play
By Annie Martirosyan
Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays. It cannot be labelled a comedy or a tragedy but it could be labelled as both. And comparing it to the other late plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, the tag “romance” too sounds awkward for the play. Perhaps the “romance of sin” would be more apt.
I like to think of Measure for Measure as a “play about prostitution” and “good and evil”. Strange as it looks from the outset, the two general descriptions can fit together, converge and diverge around the axis of a single issue Shakespeare pushes forth in this most mind-boggling play – what is morality?
Prostitution has often been called “a necessary evil” for a human society. Culturalised thinking will look at it as an evil – it is immoral, says the Church. The basic, unspoken reasoning in us will say it is a necessary institution for a society to prevent crimes of heavier nature. While it is evil and immoral to sell your body by any standards, from the viewpoint of especially the male of the species it is a call of nature to freely copulate.
The strangeness of the punishment for getting involved in prostitution in Measure for Measure is that it is not the prostitutes who are being condemned, publicly disgraced or morally effaced, but it is the men using the services that are verdicted for harsh capital punishment. The whole process of Angelo’s decisions and actions is controversial, confusing and contradictory. He gives order for Claudio to be executed because his girlfriend is pregnant. Angelo takes upon himself the right to punish everyone for copulation – not prostitution, as he tries to convince Escalus (and himself too). In portraying Angelo as a fine defender of justice, order and morality, Shakespeare deliberately makes him so perfect in sternness to show us the blunders in stereotyped, institutionalised standards of rightness and wrongness in the face of the “moral dictator” Angelo. “I am perfect, everyone should be like me – a passionless, rational Homo sapiens”, that’s what Angelo thinks.
Unlike animals, everything we do, including basic physical actions like using the loo, is culturalised. Hence, copulation too, being part of our adapted existence, is supposed to be validated by certain moral codes. The Church – the formal institution spreading the beliefs-turned-rules we have set ourselves throughout the ages – says copulation outside wedlock is immoral, therefore it is evil.
In Measure for Measure, Isabella is a direct representative of the Church – all defined purity and righteousness. Angelo, whereas, being a true adherent to the moral codes set by the Church, is mocked by his maleness. He not only finds his natural basic (or base?) needs prevailing over his culturalised thinking of what is good and what is evil – but the human-made moral codes are derided further as Angelo tries to restore it to the effect by trying to cover up his breach (Isabella’s supposed seduction) with a double coat of erring (Claudio’s supposed execution).
Questioning the issue of prostitution as a necessary evil, Shakespeare in fact pushes forth the issue of the moralness of copulation and its role in the life of a human versus society. He challenges the righteousness of the moral codes we humans have moulded for ourselves and judge others for the qualities and desires we all possess.
Shakespeare persuasively argues for the different sides of the issue (Isabella vs. Juliet, Isabella vs. Mariana, Angelo vs. Claudio, Isabella vs. Angelo) out of the mouth of the most “objective” Duke as the Ultimate Judge. The Duke’s fair dealing with the whole party throughout the play very judicially, professionally and smoothly makes us believe in all the uncontroversial decisions the Duke makes to find the happy medium between the evils and their necessity. He calls for measure for measure by unimpassionedly and impartially solving problems and arranging everyone’s life for themselves. The objectivity of the justice on the lips of the godding Duke is most vivid especially when he marries Marianna off to Angelo and then orders for him to be executed only to see Isabella plead for the life of the man who did (yet did not) do evils to her. The Duke, like God, wants to try all his subjects, and succeeds.
The play might end as a good lesson in morality and justice if Shakespeare had inked his feather and sent Isabella to a nunnery. But he had not. Instead, he challenges the Supreme Judge in the form of the just, objective, impersonal, benevolent Duke. Shakespeare takes us back to our initial basic unspoken reasoning, reminds us that to err is human, therefore it is no erring – it is human. The controversial ending of the play with the Duke proposing to Isabella and her silent response (yes or no?) leave the play open to perpetual interpretations about what the play is actually about.
The poet C.L. Washbrook says, “We are emotional creatures and throughout the entirety of history, our emotional reactions have been placed last”. The Duke fails to be a pure, unemotional, banal godly judge to the end, yet he falls in no disgrace – he rewards his maleness for the just, unemotional course of actions he has taken so far by ignoring the sermon he has been preaching. The Duke and Angelo are in fact two sides of the same coin. They both act subjectively: Angelo desperately seeks a social moral ideal and falls – Vincentio knows it all and consciously chooses to sacrifice his social righteousness to personal desires. This is that Shakespearean trait that puts him on a unique pedestal - he values an individual above the society.
Justice, Justice, Justice, Justice!, cries Isabella. And the justice – if we reason as objectively as the Duke had – should be sending her to a nunnery. But the Duke chooses to marry the nun instead. And what does she do? Does Isabella accept the proposal apace? Does she reject? Shakespeare leaves it up to us to guess. If Isabella had said “Ay, my lord, henceforth your true servant”, she would fall before our eyes as an erring face of the inerrant Church, that godly righteousness. If she had said “I beseech your pardon, sir. I have my God to serve”, the play would simply be uninteresting, albeit logically anticipated.
Lack of logical sequence of actions in Shakespeare is one of the reins that shuffled the canon through 400 years. The originality of Shakespeare’s mundane plots is that he is never ultimately objective, passionless and impersonal. He slips, once in a while, like Duke Vincentio, and this is what makes him so universally adorable. Shakespeare places our humanness above our culturalisedness, pushes morality out of the social stereotypes, differentiates between a social tradition and the inner morality and places the moral code inside our souls (Duke Vincentio) – not outside in the social crowd (Angelo). He says we are animals with basic needs and desires above all godly duties but different from animals with not merely institutionalised reasoning, but refined complex deep emotional souls.
Isabella puts her hand on her cross, kisses it, draws back her hand and gives it to the Duke. Because she is a wo-man.