Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure
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Contemporary American politics stands at a crossroads. With faith in traditional leaders at its lowest point in recent memory and the failing faith of the population in the institutions of government, a kind of “vacuum” in the most important roles of leadership exists today. Interestingly enough, while the power-vacuum is being experienced, the first serious female contender for the President of the United States, Senator Hilary Clinton, faces important gender-related issues of leadership and competency. Although there is no direct empirical evidence to suggest that women are a “weaker” source of leadership than men, traditional social mores and cultural prejudices in Western culture exert a powerful influence in the minds of voters.
Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure” forwards a theme of male to male power-transition. No less central to the overall unity of the play is a corresponding theme of patriarchal dominance. This theme coincides with the historical realities in England during the play’s composition. Part of England’s historical transition after the reign of Elizabeth involved both a feeling of patriarchal “absenteeism” and a subsequent ambiguity of gender roles. Measure for Measure mirrors just such a social ‘crisis” in its rising action. The departure of the Duke signals both the trial-by-fire initiation of Angelo, who pleads “Let there be some more test made of my metal/Before so noble and great a figure/Be stamped upon it.” The resulting chaos which follows the departure of the trusted patriarch can be best summed up in the exchange between two minor characters the Clown and the Bawd. When the Clown remarks “Yonder man is carried to prison” referring to Claudio, the Bawd asks “Well, what has he done?” and the Clown’s reply is “A woman.”
This “crime” of having “done” a woman bespeaks to the full range of “crimes” in Measure for Measure, all of which, at root, partake of the destabilizing or corrupting influence of women. In fact, the play itself is somewhat disordered and chaotically constructed, lending further impetus to the theme of “feminine” engendered chaos and confusion. Throughout the play: deception, duplicity, disguise, and intrigue dominate the action and motivation. Likewise, the fragmentary or “disordered” motion of the play is best viewed as intentional.
The basic thrust of the play is to overturn the seemingly violent corruptions of the world-order in the Duke’s absence (which are due to the corrupting influence of women) by way of implementing a male-centered ethic and world-vision. A strong example of this is the dialogue between Isabella and Angelo when she begs him “Yet show some pity.” and he responds “I show it most of all when I show justice;/ For then I pity those I do not know” thereby forwarding a dispassionate, impersonal ethic of justice, one founded not on interpersonal (thus feminine) relationships, but on abstract (thus masculine) principles.
Measure for Measure demonstrates the transition of male to male power with an
intervening period of instability and corruption or “falsehood” that, within the context of the play, or reconciled as being the vacuum where male power has been effaced or exiled. It is an idealization of male power, “The world of this kind of romance obeys a rule of ideal equity, and, where a man is not (according to its conventions) to blame for what he has done, we may be sure that some favourable chance will intervene between the act and its natural consequence,” (Lascelles 40). For modern audiences, the play should serve as a reminder that idealization often takes place when unfavorable social prejudices conflict with living reality. In the search for a transition of power in contemporary American politics, the play, when read for it’s intended themes, casts a dire warning against the lack of strong Patriarchal leadership; read in an historical context, however, with a view toward understanding the play as representation of an idealization of male power, it serves as a reminder as to why such prejudices and biases based on gender are as unfounded today as they were in Shakespeare’s time.
Lascelles, Mary. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. London: Athlone Press, 1953.