By Lakhyajit Nath

The article has an attempt to demonstrate one of the major themes in measure for measure, Anarchy and sexuality.  Measure for Measure is one of the dark comedies written by William Shakespeare. Like other novels, in Measure for Measure Shakespeare is well acquainted to sketch the life-like character. In simple terms anarchy means the state of society in which no authorities or an authoritative governing body or on the other hand it is a chaotic and confusing absence of any form of political authority or government. It is also very significant that sexuality is one of the dominant themes in this novel which changed the direction of the novel. It is sexuality, which caused chaotic situations in Measure for Measure in particular and in the sixteenth century society in general. Shakespeare’s main motif is to depict the socio-political, economical scenario in the sixteenth century England.

Marriage in the renaissance was not merely a social institution, but it is also the social institution upon which all other depended. From a biblical perspective, marriage is the first human social act. It is the source of rational connections. Creating extended kinship ties between families and within families. It permits a religiously and governmentally sanctioned sexual consumption, which in turn provides the children through whom the future of individuals, countries and human race is secured. Above all it is the foundation of property relations, since estates and wealth are transmitted by marriage.

The renaissance playgoers believed that women were highly sexual, and likely as the “weaker sex” to give in their passions; marriages serve as a control over this tendency to stay. Husbands were to “master” their wives, educate them in their duties. Thus the patriarchal society was fully reflected in the very play. The marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer pointed out that the husband was the “head” of the wife in the same way that Christ is the head of the church. There were born many illegitimate children which had no recognized father. These children became the future bawds, pimps, cheats, whores, bandits, and vagabonds. They were also became the heavy burden of the society. Lever (1967) in his book ‘Measure for Measure’ revealed that it is also significant that by promoting laws like fornication law, the rural used to keep the underground people in their hand. They have to maintain a line between extreme and normal state. It is also a trick to control the people from making any revolt against the government.

In Vienna the name of the duke was Vincentio. One day he decided to hand over the authority to lord Angelo and appointed Escalus as his deputy. He told them that he had decided to go abroad and wish that they rule his kingdom with his absence. He gave Angelo the full power of the state. But the purpose of duke’s leaving the authority to his deputy Angelo was different from what he had stated. The actual fact was that he realized that he had been too lazy in enforcing the laws of his country of the citizens, due to which Vienna had become immoral he was not prepared to enforce new or redundant laws on his subjects, after being liberal for such a considerable time. He told Angelo that justice prevailed through right enforcement of laws. He said that

             “For common justice, y’ are as pregnant in
              As art and practice hath enriched any
              That we remember” (ACT I.9-10) 

From this quote we came to know that he had full faith on Angelo and wished that he could rule the country very sincerely. In short he tried to experiment over Angelo regarding how he could rule to his estate and what were the reactions of the common people or the ‘underworld peoples’.

Angelo on the hand was a man of cool blooded. He was very possessive in his positions. He showed himself over- strict in enforcing the laws. He proclaimed that all brothels and in the suburbs of the Vienna would be pulled down in order to stop the evils of prostitutions and pimping. It is also significant that the illegal sexual affairs caused heavy problems in the society and it also well reflected in the sixteenth century England. It spreads Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and produced many illegitimate children. For example:

“Lucio. Behold, behold, where Madam Mitigation comes!
      I have purchased as many diseases under her roof as
      Come to – (act. 1. ii)”

In these lines is uttered by Lucio,, a comic character to the Gentleman in Vienna street. He says that Mistress Overdone has many venereal diseases due to illegal affairs with many peoples.

Angelo enforces the fornication law after fourteenth years. First he sentenced to death Claudio on the charged of fornication. There is no doubt that Claudio is fully forfeit for this punishment because it is his fault to make pregnant of his girlfriend Juliet. He says to Claudio that:

“Claudio. From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty”

He confesses that it was liberty which made him a criminal. He gets unlimited freedom for doing such things during the tenure of Duke. There is no strict rule of fornication. So like Claudio, all the groundlings made immense extramarital affairs and beget illegitimate children (Kamps and Raber, 2004).

As far Claudio is concerned, he and Juliet are married and not merely in secret. So he said to Claudio that “you know the lady”. It also suggests that Claudio and his other friends are aware that Juliet is Claudio’s legal wife. But the only complication is Juliet’s dowry. In order to receive her dowry, Claudio and Juliet are attempting to win the approval of her “friends”, the relatives who have been charged with her care since the (assume) death of her parents. But Angelo representing the law of Vienna, has determined that this form of spousal doesn’t constitute marriage and he punishes Claudio for fornication, a crime identical to the wholesale sexual license being practiced in Vienna brothels.

‘Thus what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows and what with poverty, I am custom- shrunk.(1.2.4)’

These lines are uttered by Mistress Overdone. From these lines we’ve seen how some of the main characters view sexuality as something sinful and corrupting.  Yet, minor characters like Mistress Overdone don't view sex in quite the same way.  For Mistress Overdone and others, sex is big business. They take it very casually.

The only married woman in this play is Mrs. Elbow, a minor character. Though she is pregnant she is not included in a happy family circle instead she is associated with a brothel. The relationship of Angelo and Mariana adds further dark shades. This is a girl who still loves the man who betrayed her in several ways and several times. After learning all the underhand activities of Angelo, she enthusiastically participated in the bad- trick. Her devotion is on a verge of masochism; her love is incurable. This is perhaps good, because in their marriage she will need enough love for both, as Angelo is incapable of any love except ‘self- love’.

The three central characters of the play, Isabella, Angelo and the Duke, have at least one thing in common. It is their concern about virtue. Isabella’s virtue, her chastity is perhaps virtue least dependent on the public opinion. This is not to say it is totally independent, as she has to live in a society in which women’s chastity was a crucial part of securing legitimacy, but at least her virtue seems more internalized than that of Angelo or the Duke. She is tolerant and never provoked by the sexuality of others, she has just chosen a different path for herself. However, even she in some cases may appear to mistake the priorities. Some critics suggest that her very decision to value her chastity over her brother’s life is selfish and that she uses the religious reasons only as a pretext for not doing a proper act of charity. After all, Saint Augustine argued that sin is a property of the will and not a physical state, therefore if a Christian virgin was raped, the act was irrelevant to her soul. The problem with this interpretation is that Isabella was not threatened with a normal rape, she was asked not only to comply with Angelo’s order, to give her consent, but to actively seek her own destruction and come to him. Even Saint Augustine might have had trouble justifying this, Isabella seems to genuinely trust that it would destroy her forever, although she has all reasons to believe that Angelo would do all he could to keep the whole thing secret for his own sake. She is not primarily concerned with public opinion but with her own conscience. Even if her deal with Angelo remained undiscovered, her way to the cloister would be barred. Moreover, her chastity may serve as a protection against the patriarchal world. As a nun she would be subordinate to the strict rules of the convent, but she would be partly freed from the rules of the patriarchal society. The representatives of the lay world in Measure for Measure seem to recognize the moral superiority the self-imposed eternal chastity represents. Even the incorrigible Lucio speaks of and to Isabella with reverence. At the same time the men of authority seem to be provoked by this “power” out of their control, therefore they feel the need to neutralize it either by a rape or by a marriage. Both ways will render Isabella powerless. Even her seeming participation in the act of her seduction leaves her helpless and vulnerable.

Isabella’s participation in something as morally doubtful as the bed-trick is again slightly undermining her proclaimed virtue, but on the other hand, it reveals about her that although she is not prepared to sacrifice her immortal soul for her brother’s life sake, she is willing to do almost anything else for him. Moreover, it is not her idea (nor Mariana’s); they both just obey advice/orders of a “holy man”, therefore their responsibility is limited. Isabella and Mariana become friends and support each other in peril, but it happens more or less out of necessity and self-interest, there is not much affection or solidarity. Where Isabella may really deviate from the Christian ways is her violent reaction to Claudio’s death, she is full of un- Christian but human anger and desire for revenge, and she wants to pluck out Angelo’s eyes. She actively tries to destroy Angelo by her public accusation, although without the Duke’s intervention she would only harm herself. Nevertheless, later she becomes again a marble statue of Christian charity, forgives Angelo and helps Mariana to plead for his life even before she learns that her brother is unharmed.

    “But it is I
    That, lying by the violet in the sun
     Do as the carrion does, not as the flower
     Corrupt with virtuous season […]” (2.2.27)

These lines signify the character of Angelo. He was attracted towards Isabella, sister of Claudio. First, Angelo sees his sexual desire as something "corrupt" and compares his body to carrion (road kill) rotting in the sun. We also notice that Angelo is turned on by Isabella's virtue. Just a few lines later, he confesses that he would never get as excited about a woman who isn't a virgin and that this is the first time he's ever experienced sexual desire.

Shakespeare had a marvelous opportunity to convey us the intellectual nature of sexual urges. His play becomes dark because the choice of his medium limits itself to the social and religious practices of his time. He does not know the intellectual nature of these instincts. He knows that man deserves to be free in his sexual preferences, but he does not know what is to be done with this freedom. He knows that any punishment for premarital sex is bad, but he also leaves us in no doubt that premarital sex itself is something which cannot be condoned in society. That is the reason why the duke pardons both Claudio and Angelo for indulging in premarital sex; but he urges Angelo and Claudio to marry the women with whom they had premarital sex.

At last we can say that love, sex and marriage must be a reflection of what one upholds to be true. This drama tells us that a man who goes wrong in this ground must face the consequences himself, without any harsh interference by the state or society. Thus, sex and anarchy is dominated theme in this play and he is able to give a vivid description of sixteenth century England.

  • J.W. Lever. Measure for Measure. London: Methuen Publishers, 1967.
  • I. Kamps and K. Raber. Measure for Measure: Texts and Contexts. U.S: Bedford Books, 2004.
About the author: The author, Lakhyajit Nath is presently studying MA in English literature at Tezpur Central University.  He is very fond of writing articles based on present context of the society. Many of his articles were published on Newspaper like Assam Tribune, and magazines etc. He wants to become a good writer.


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