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Measure for Measure

By sduffy655 Dec 30, 2012 2832 Words
Scene one and TwoThe major characters and situations are laid out. The plot revolves around the new leader's treatment of sexual offenses, particularly fornication, which is considered a sin. The characters also fit into groups depending on their opinions about sexual behavior. Claudio is the middle-of-the-road thinker, not involved in prostitution and possessing only noble beliefs about his relationship with Juliet, but unable to prevent himself from desiring her sexually and therefore culpable. His sister Isabella presents one extreme, abstaining from sexual activity entirely in order to become a nun. Mistress Overdone is at the other end of the spectrum, managing the prostitution business in Vienna. The only mobile character on the spectrum is Angelo, who is here presented as a strict but virtuous leader who is given free reign in the Duke's absence. Angelo begins to enforce laws that have been dormant for some time. He hopes to clean up the city, shutting down brothels and requiring abstinence before marriage. This will make illegitimate births a thing of the past and protect the city's women, so it is not harmful in itself. He oversteps the framework of justice, however, when he sentences Claudio to death for having sexual intercourse with his lover before marriage. This is, of course, a very strict punishment considering the crime, and Angelo appears as an unwavering, unmerciful leader at this point. The general atmosphere in Vienna seems to be one of merriment and disregard for the law. Claudio is to serve as an example in order to change this. It is perhaps this environment which prompts Isabella to join the nunnery, since she does not approve of fornication or prostitution and wants to be close to God and safe from male attention. The major conflict of the play already emerges at this point; it lies between Isabella and the other characters, religion and hedonism. The Duke and Isabella are both described in more detail. They are both shown to be good-intentioned, sometimes confused characters who seek to improve the situation around them. The Duke wants to bring more law and order to Vienna but does not know how to do it himself, so he has allowed Angelo to take his place. However, he does not wish Angelo to have free reign, knowing him to be very strict and possibly heartless, so he asks Friar Thomas to disguise him so that he might roam the city in secret. Isabella, similarly, seeks to retire from daily affairs. She joins a convent, thinking that she will find a safe, religious, pure environment in which she can worship. Her introduction to the life of a nun is interrupted by a plea from Lucio, and this is the first moment at which she must consider her choice. She is asked to leave the nunnery physically at this point; later she will be asked to give up her vow of chastity, and eventually she will be asked to marry instead of returning to the nunnery. Her physical departure is all the more important because she is asked to plead, on her brother's behalf, for forgiveness of what she and her religion consider to be a sin: fornication. At this point, she acts on familial loyalty rather than religious devotion, saying that she thinks the punishment for her brother's crime is warranted but too severe. This first introduction to Isabella's beliefs about sexual behavior is particularly important. She will be asked to make major decisions and question her beliefs about acceptability and propriety, and her brother's life hangs in the balance. At this point, we see only that Isabella is innocent, chaste, and devoted to her religion. She is looking for protection from the sins of the common people of Vienna; Lucio brings her away from this safe haven into a situation in which she is vulnerable to the sins of others. This scene exists primarily for comic relief, distracting the audience momentarily from the issues at stake, particularly Claudio's imminent execution. Escalus is a noble character who acts as a straight-man to the dim-witted constable and the foolish clown. Elbow is a frivolous addition to the cast of characters, amusing because of his use of malapropisms, or misspoken phrases and words. He is sent to retrieve the criminals of Vienna, and he appears at various intervals performing this task and providing more pure comedy. At the end of the scene, the tone shifts back to seriousness, as Escalus expresses his pity for Claudio. It is important that Escalus, as well as the provost, does not approve of the punishment to be administered to Claudio, and yet sees no way to convince Angelo to be more merciful. Angelo appears to be narrow-minded and stern; the other characters seem to fear him. There is a sense of apathy among the characters generally; it takes the Duke's intervention to promote movement, discussion, and action in them. Measure for Measure reaches its height of tension early, with the encounter between Isabella and Angelo and the issues that their meeting raises. Angelo find himself suddenly vulnerable to the same sinful desires for which he is having Claudio put to death. This changes his position completely; no longer on a moral pedestal, he must instead spend his time avoiding culpability rather than carrying out the law. Lucio seems to comprehend Angelo's vulnerability from the start, encouraging Isabella to touch him and be less cold. Lucio is encouraging Isabella to exploit her femininity to convince Angelo. In a way, he is even encouraging her to offer herself as his sexual object in order to save her brother's life. Lucio may well know that Angelo would respond by propositioning her, and he may expect her to accept, just as her brother will when she explains the dilemma to him. Only Isabella understands fornication to be a deadly sin, which is why the thought is so repulsive to her. The Duke enjoys his newfound power to absolve sinners as a friar. He shows natural sympathy towards Juliet, and it is clear that he would be more merciful in Angelo's place, but that he is not against Angelo's actions. Already we see the Duke's desire to operate power from the inside, investigating the various characters in his disguise and determining from the evidence they provide what the best course of action will be. The Duke is the only character who appears in almost every location in the play; his hand is active everywhere, and he is pulling most of the strings. The very structure of this scene is frustrating. The audience is immediately aware of Angelo's intentions, but Isabella is either too naive to understand them or too desperate to avoid the actual proposition. She is obviously offended by the very notion of having sexual intercourse with Angelo, becoming furious at the suggestion. It may be her angry reluctance that makes her so desirable to Angelo. It would not be difficult for him to find a sexual partner, considering the prevalence of prostitution in Vienna, and later we discover that there is a woman readily available to him as a wife. He seeks to abstain from sexual activity, and only Isabella draws him out of this resolution. Isabella is given apparent power over her brother's situation, and she genuinely believes that she could save her brother's life. She refuses the option instantly. In a way, she is handing this power over to God; her virtue and her soul are, for her, in God's hands, and by refusing to disobey his will she is only following along with his expectations of her. Her power is solely sexual, and so she refuses it. Although Isabella is fast in her determination to refuse, Angelo gives her a day to think about it. Dramatically, this gives Isabella time to discuss the proposal with her brother and the Duke time to formulate a plan. It also shows that Angelo believes she will relent with enough persuasion. Two larger issues emerge in the exchange between Angelo and Isabella. Angelo brings up the topic of love, claiming to be in love with her. He does not promise to marry her, however, implying that he really feels solely lust. Isabella mentions that she would rather die than have intercourse with him, which becomes her primary justification for refusing. She formulates the opinion that death is favorable to shame, and decides that her brother's death is better than her own sinful act.

Isabella has no real reason to tell Claudio about Angelo's proposition if she has truly made up her mind. She either seeks approval from him, or she is unsure and wants to be convinced that she is wrong. Considering Claudio's reaction and Isabella's response, it seems that the former is more likely; her mind is set, but she wants his approval for her decision. She is reassured when he seems to agree, but she clearly does not have enough faith in him to think that he would agree with her no matter what. If that were the case, she could simply have stated the proposition immediately, knowing that he would agree with her. However, she sidles around it, first ensuring that they agree on moral grounds and then mentioning the specific circumstance. Isabella should not be too surprised by his reaction, given that he obviously considers fornication to be less of a sin than she does, having committed it himself. He begins to look upon her as a selfish, naive figure as he tries to convince her to sacrifice virtue for the sake of pragmatism. However, he does realize the repulsiveness of the suggestion and feels ashamed for having tried to convince her otherwise. Isabella's response to Claudio's willingness to let her accept the proposition is to criticize the act of sexual intercourse itself. She says, "Heaven shield my mother played my father fair" (III.i.141), suggesting that there was some sexual deviance in their own parents' relationship which caused him to become so cowardly and given to sinful behavior. At this point, Isabella wavers between virtue and foolishness. The play is sexually explicit in its plot and language, and Isabella emerges as a frigid, prudish figure for her willingness to sacrifice her brother's life to save her own honor. She will not be a martyr for him, and he does not wish to become a martyr for her. The Duke's solution is an easy way out, and it ends the great moment of conflict between brother and sister with a pat and unlikely solution. Perhaps Shakespeare thought the question too large to answer in five acts, and so he discards it as open-ended, replacing it with an unlikely and somewhat illogical scheme instead of examining it in more detail

Another primarily humorous scene, here we see the Duke interacting with both prisoners and law enforcement agents. Interestingly, all of the prisoners other than Claudio are quite laughable figures. Claudio emerges as the one offender for whom sympathy is felt naturally, as opposed to merely amusement. The Duke encounters Lucio and shows himself to be mildly vengeful, trying to protect his honor despite his disguise. This, perhaps, suggests an ulterior motive in disguising himself: he wants to see how his subjects honestly feel about him and his methods of rule, and he can only do so through making himself functionally invisible to them. Claudio's offense is also revealed to be much smaller than those of the other convicted criminals. He was involved in nothing truly decadent, acting solely out of love and lust. Angelo appears as a merciless figure for condemning him to death, and Isabella appears even stricter in her beliefs for her suggestion that the sentence is not entirely unjust. Perhaps it is this belief which motivates her to allow him to be killed instead of giving up her chastity. The Duke's schemes are developed more fully, and here we really see him directing his followers according to precise instructions. He tells Isabella and Mariana what to do with assuredness, although the plan could clearly fail, considering the intimacy of the proposed contact between Angelo and Mariana. The issue is not discussed clearly, nor is the question of why it is legal for the act to take place truly explored. After all, Claudio and Juliet had a similar contract of marriage to Angelo and Mariana's, and in that case both were willing. Here only one party is willing, and yet it is considered lawful. Perhaps it is the thought of tricking Angelo which makes the scheme seem appropriate here. Mariana, when asked if she approves, answers that she will carry out the scheme if the friar thinks it is all right. The Duke assumed all along that Mariana would be willing to have sexual intercourse with Angelo, despite his hateful behavior towards her. The suggestion is that she can be redeemed only through this sexual act, because otherwise she remains a discarded woman instead of a wife. The Duke also arranges a scheme involving the provost and the executions which are to take place. He is willing to sacrifice the life of Barnadine but wishes to preserve the life of Angelo. This implies a value judgment on life itself; one life is seen as worthwhile while the other is not. These statements of balance and equality figure largely in the play as a whole, as prospects are weighed against each other. The whole concept of "Measure still for Measure" (IV.i.414) centers around appropriate punishments and retributions. Things become more muddled just as they are on the verge of clarification. The Duke's plans are carried out, and he instigates a new scheme to save Claudio and Barnadine both. Barnadine refuses to be executed, perhaps even sensing that the Duke and the provost see his life as worthless. His assertion that he will not die is a statement of the sanctity of life in general. The convenient death of the pirate matches the convenient existence of Mariana in its incredibility, and the Duke's attitude encourages us simply to follow along as all the other characters do. Angelo emerges as quite an oblivious figure, as he is tricked by Mariana's substitution for Isabella and a pirate's substitution for Claudio all in the space of one night and morning. Here Shakespeare truly demands that we suspend our disbelief. The Duke's lie to Isabella is undoubtedly unkind, causing her great distress and anger. There are some possible motivations for this; perhaps, for instance, he believed that she would not argue passionately against Angelo once the point became irrelevant. However, it is likely that he wants to surprise her dramatically before asking for her hand in marriage. The Duke does not immediately reveal his dual identity, still enjoying the intrigue which only he fully comprehends. To some extent, he is playing with his subjects, making them believe that they act of their own volition while manipulating them. He is also testing them, perhaps to determine how worthy they are of their positions. Isabella no doubt falls into this examination of virtue, and she passes by refusing Angelo's proposals and obeying the Duke and Friar wholeheartedly. Shakespearean comedies traditionally end with marriage, and Measure for Measure is no exception. Isabella, originally on the verge of becoming a nun, finds herself about to marry the Duke. It is interesting that she is not given a chance to respond to the Duke's marriage proposal in the play. She is assumedly very happy to become the wife of the town's leader, particularly since he has saved her brother's life. But at the same time this situation reinforces her loss of sexual independence. The central conflict in the play revolves around Isabella's refusal to follow the ways of most of the women in Vienna. Her marriage to the Duke confirms her virtue while denying her independence. There are no independent women in Measure for Measure. Of course, this is not strange, considering the setting and Shakespeare's own era. But Measure for Measure gives its women characters even less freedom than other Shakespearean plays. They are prostitutes, nuns, or jilted lovers, given no chance to control their own lives. Isabella is the one exception in that she refuses to respond to Angelo's advances. However, she is still obedient toward the Duke, following all of his instructions. At the conclusion of the play, the Duke administers punishment to all of the wrongdoers and rewards the virtuous. Angelo is told to marry Mariana, and he escapes death at her request. The Duke probably does not intend to execute Angelo, but wants it made clear that his crime deserves such a punishment. Mariana's reward is Angelo, which she takes happily, although the Duke tells her that he is unworthy of her love. Claudio is allowed to marry Juliet, and Lucio is punished by being made to marry a prostitute. Marriage is not a clear-cut punishment or reward, therefore. Instead, its qualities revolve around the individual situations in which it occurs

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