Power and Transgression in Measure for Measure

Excerpts from ‘Power and Transgression in Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure‘ by Jesse A. Goldberg

Shakespeare’s comedies, at first glance, seem to uniformly end on a positive note, with the fulfillment of desires, the overcoming of obstacles, and the victory over malevolent forces. In Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure, however, this is not the case. The conclusions of both plays are reiterations of problematic power structures present in each play. […] Measure for Measure, in its focus on religion and motifs of manipulation and falsity, depicts how those who are empowered by status use their power to reinforce their own position and shape the world around them, thus leaving those who are set in a lower position subject to the power of the elite.

In Act I, scene iii of Measure for Measure, the Duke of Vienna relates how during his rule, “Sith ‘twas my fault to give the people scope,/’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them/For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,/When evil deeds have their permissive pass,/And not the punishment” (Measure I.iii.36-40). Since he has let his people slip and yet does not wish to bear scrutiny for becoming more stringent he leaves Illyria and places Lord Angelo in his position, granting him “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” (I.i.47). It would appear that the Duke is relinquishing his power within society, but he is merely exchanging it, for after giving up the role of Duke he assumes the role of a Friar. He exchanges political authority for religious authority; he exchanges power over people’s public actions for power over their private actions. He uses this power for its own sake to reinforce himself, much like the corrupt Party of George Orwell’s 1984, most obviously in the convoluted method of revealing the true story of Angelo and Isabella to the public. The Duke conjures a plan with Isabella to trick Angelo by feigning to agree to his advance in exchange for her brother’s life, but tells her to switch places with Mariana, the woman to whom Angelo was previously betrothed, thus freeing her brother and forcing Angelo to marry the woman he had left. While planning this, he also plans to trick Angelo into believing that Claudio had been executed by sending him a head of a dead prisoner with a similar appearance. But instead of informing Isabella of this, he allows her, too, to believe that her brother was killed and implores her to wait and argue her case to the Duke when he returns.

Then, when the time comes and he reappears assuming his outward identity as the Duke, Isabella pleads her case only to be called a “poor soul,” a “wretched woman” (Measure V.i.46, 132), and ultimately to be carried off and silenced while the Duke – all the time knowing very well the truth – entertains evidence brought forth by Friar Peter in the form of Mariana’s testimony. The Duke possessed knowledge of the truth and could have ended the artificial trial he created far quicker had he acted upon what he unequivocally knew. But instead he plays the part of the ignorant judge, questioning Isabella’s reliability and even settling her dispute without her voice. Thus it is he who, to the outside observer without knowledge of the story, appears as the force of justice, the individual possessing the power to affect change, and not Isabella – just as he wishes. The Duke executes his power for no reason other than to reaffirm his authority. In fact, his power rests on his orchestration of artificial demonstrations such as this. “Control of the threat becomes the rationale of authoritarian reaction in a time of apparent crisis” (Dollimore 73). The stage is set, then, for the Duke to consolidate power: his city is in a time of crisis as is rampant and so if he allows transgression to occur only to reappear and punish it, he is necessitating his people’s trust and submission to him.

The obvious falsity of his religious power calls into question, however, his political power. If his religious power is a function of artifice, what makes his political power legitimate? The falsity of the Duke’s outward personality at least calls into question the nature of authority and whether it ever rests in any true substance. In fact, readers of Measure for Measure are apt to question the nature of authority when they observe the falsity and self-serving nature of the Duke next to the of Angelo. Angelo, who bears an “unsoil’d name” and an “austereness of life” (Measure II.iv.155), who is ready to sentence to death a man who had sex outside of marriage, puts forth to Isabella that should she “lay down the treasure of [her] body” (II.iv.96) he would rescind his sentence bestowed on her brother, Claudio. This blackmail is only too well representative of the corruption of authority figures by the power that they hold. The paradox, though, is contained within the question, does power itself come from anything but artifice? […]

This essentialization of one’s status is taken to wider, sweepingly disturbing conclusions in Measure for Measure. Jonathan Dollimore points out that “the Duke, speaking to the Friar, acknowledges that this crisis stems from a failure on the part of the rulers yet at the same time displaces responsibility onto the ruled” (77). This is a manifestation of an ideology which continuously places blame on peoples in lower social positions, essentially attaching sin to the ruled and righteousness, or perhaps divinity, since that is more closely an opposite of sin, to the rulers. Thus, “because Angelo’s transgression is represented as growing from his desire rather than his authority, his is a crime which can be construed as a lapse into the corruption of a lower humanity, a descent into the sins of the ruled” (74). Conversely, the Duke can be read as a benevolent bearer of justice and righteousness. He offers Isabella redemption for her trickery, but only at the cost of allowing him to bolster himself. Thus redemption itself becomes a social transaction. The appearance of righteousness is artifice. The ideology of associating sin with lower forms of humanity is, as evidenced by Angelo himself, blatant and yet ever so subtle artifice.

The conclusions of both plays ultimately support these readings of stringent class structures being supported by the powers that be in each play. […] Similarly in Measure for Measure, “the corrupt deputy is unmasked but no law is repealed and the mercy exercised remains the prerogative of the same ruler who initiated reaction” (Dollimore 83). There is the illusion of justice as presented by the Duke, but the ideology governing Vienna does not change. These two plays, then, present criticisms of social class structure in the form of comedy so as to reveal the absurdities of power and authority when it rests on the foundation of artifice and false ideology.

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