Vim, Ph.D.
37 min readMar 4, 2016

Poetics & Political Authority in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

The following is a lecture I wrote in January of 2016 and delivered on February 9, 2016 before the students and faculty in a course called “Culture and Expression,” in my university’s Honors College program. The centralizing concept for the semester’s readings — texts that are basically canonical works for courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences — is “Hide and Seek: Modern Perspectives on Self, Other, and Society.” The edition I cite from is edited by Ivo Kamps and Karen Raber and is published by Bedford/St.Martin’s. When I refer to “you” in the text below, I’m addressing students directly; they are all or mostly freshmen. As I have said in a previous post: Because of the context in which I delivered this essay, I was not aiming for my readings to break new ground in the field of Shakespeare studies; I am not sure I say anything in the bulk of it that other scholars in my field haven’t said elsewhere in some fashion. But I am posting the lecture in public in case others might find it useful in their teaching.

CONTENT WARNING: Rape. This lecture discusses instances of non-consensual sexual encounters and various conduct that is disturbing and potentially upsetting.

At the end of Shakespeare’s Jacobean comedy Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio informs Isabella that her brother Claudio is pardoned for the offense of pre-marital fornication; as tacit compensation for the effort and benevolence that went into that pardon, he then commands her to “Give [him her] hand and say [she] will be [his].”

To this command Isabella says nothing. In fact, she says nothing from line 449 forward, though the play will go on for almost another hundred lines. The Duke says nothing else to her either for most of them, as he turns to mete out punishments to Angelo and Lucio and lift the punishment of life in prison from Barnadine. When he finally does return to Isabella in the play’s final 5 lines, he tells her “Dear Isabel, I have a motion much imports your good, / Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine.”

There are many things that I find remarkable about these comments. First, his invitation is phrased so as to emphasize her ability to consent. She neither has to join him at the palace nor listen to him unless she has “a willing ear” and leans it towards him out of choice. But, given how he introduces this invitation, we are also invited to wonder, if he’s really asking her. After all, her suit begins with the command to give her hand and say she will be his, and he’s also just asserted in no uncertain terms that the “motion” will be good for her. This both/and way of treating matters of consent is consistent with the way the Duke and Shakespeare the playwright have operated throughout the play. Characters are able to make decisions within a social framework that is on one hand, open to their participation, and on another, over-determined. That is, the world of the play is one in which characters are led to think they are acting upon their own volition and needs but in fact their choices have been limited in ways that make their desires not entirely their own.

They also lead audiences to operate under similar constraints, conditioning readers and spectators to wish for outcomes that are, in the abstract, or outside of fiction, deeply troubling or unethical. We can see how it works generally by simply recapping the plot: Angelo commands Isabella to have sex with him to free her brother from certain death, making her accountable for one significant loss or another, despite the fact that she herself has committed no crime and has been, up to this point, a figure associated only with eloquence and virtue. And so when Vincentio offers her a way to ensure that both men get off (though certainly in different senses), we are encouraged to feel relief rather than repulsion. And yet, what the Duke is suggesting is repulsive: he’s saying that Angelo’s horrible actions — jilting Mariana after the loss of her fortune and using his authority as the Duke’s surrogate to force Isabella into losing her virginity to him — are best punished by creating a scenario in which he believes he is losing his own virginity to someone he finds desirable — when in fact he will be having sex with somebody else without his knowledge. In our modern sensibility, we can see that Angelo is denied the ability to consent to a sexual encounter — a situation that, outside of the world of the play, we would understand as rape. But if we aren’t thinking critically, we might just root for it because Shakespeare has given us a character so hypocritical and predatory that we’re possibly willing to overlook the predation that he himself is subject to.

Because our heroine Isabella participates in a lie and actively works to deceive Angelo, we must see the deception as justified, dealing a kind of poetic justice to someone who deserves it. Even if we don’t like the mechanism by which the plan will be achieved, if we want to like Isabella and ourselves, we hope that it all goes off without a hitch. And it does, generally speaking. But there is a hitch — in fact there’s many, especially if we are thinking about “hitch” as the euphemistic term for marriage (though that sense wasn’t quite operable in the 16th & 17th century). By the end of the play, there are proposed as many as 4 marriages that function as supposed solutions to past wrongs and rewards for present virtues. Lucio is forced to marry Kate Keepdown, with whom he has a child; Claudio is allowed to marry Julietta, with whom he will have a child. Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, and Isabella is, well, she is told to accept the Duke as her husband.

This brings us back to the Duke’s assertion that “What’s mine is yours and what is yours is mine” (). It’s not just the offer that makes this assertion of interest; what’s especially compelling here is the construction in which he asserts it. It consists of two clauses connected by “and”: “What’s mine is yours” and “what is yours is mine.” These appear to be the same claim made once and then made a second time but with an inversion with the order of possessive pronouns.

In terms that were familiar to poets in Shakespeare’s day, this is a figure called chiasmus. Chiasmus is so named from the Greek letter chi, or x; you can basically take the parallel constructions and draw an X from each word that’s been set up by syntax (or word order) to be seen as a parallel (even if it’s also pointing out a contrast). In other words, the stuff on both sides of a line is set up so that we recognize a difference between them, but understand them as essentially balanced. Not the same, but of equal weight on some deeper plane of meaning.

If we look closely, we’ll see they aren’t the same: for instance, we have “what’s” on one side, and “what is” on the other. But once we acknowledge this difference, it may seem trivial and so we’re still able to dismiss it as insignificant. Why split figurative grammatical hairs? After all, “What’s” and “what is” appear to do the same work.

You’ve probably seen the device of chiasmus in action before in some famous speeches: Ask not what your country can do for you, / but what you can do for your country.” It’s not always so obvious, but once you become attuned to seeing forms of chiasmus in the play, you’ll see it everywhere, often paired with another rhetorical device called syncrisis. This word is similar to chiasmus in that it refers to a parallel grammatical construction that is repeated. Unlike Chiasmus, the syntax of the construction stays the same, but the words change and encourage readers to discern the relationship between clauses that follow the same order. But like Chiasmus, Syncrisis prods us to ponder the precise relationship among clauses that seem basically alike. Think of the famous phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” or “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

In this case, the repeated phrases entail a first-person pronoun subject followed by a past tense verb; they are setting up actions that aren’t equal, but that happened in succession.

Syncrisis is one of the figures at work in Claudio’s claim “I have hope to live and am prepared to die” (3.1.4) and also in the Duke’s proposition: “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death” (5.1.405)

The line I started with, “Give me your hand and say you will be mine” also makes use of syncrisis along with a chiastic structure. It’s syncrisis in that we have imperative verb + object pronoun construction followed by a second imperative verb + object pronoun construction: “Give me” and “say you” and grammatically parallel commands. The command is also chiastic since one clause starts with “me” and “you” and the second contains forms of the same pronouns but in reverse order.

Now, you’re probably thinking “ugh, poetry is too hard. But I’ll just say: it’s not really poetry that’s hard here. It’s grammar and the fact that poetry requires a vocabulary for parts of speech that you may not have been taught. Once you know how to identify a phenomenon, however, you can read more carefully and you’ll start notice that these constructions are everywhere in the play. In these and in many other instances, they work together to suggest a kind of parallelism or to set up a contrast — sometimes both — putting pressure on the words on either side so that we are force to contemplate or measure their value relative to one another.

Take, for example, Lucio’s jokes with the first gentlemen at the brothel about whether or their pleasure-seeking will keep them out of heaven: he says “Grace is grace, despite of all controversy” and then declares that his companion is “a wicked villain, despite of all grace.”

Chiasmus and syncrisis work here to suggest that a person can be wicked despite his gentle rank, and that the chosen will have God’s mercy no matter what they do. The figure of syncrisis helps Lucio sets up additional equations at the end of the play, when he complains that marrying a punk or prostitute is equal to being a cuckold, being pressed to death, whipped, or hanged.

My basic argument today is that Shakespeare uses chiasmus and syncrisis ostentatiously to highlight, by way of the play’s style, the stakes of questions that undergird the play’s plot: Are punishments proportionate to crimes? At what point are reactions to crimes themselves criminal acts? Is one crime equal to another misdeed? Do multiple misdeeds by different parties somehow cancel one another out? To what extent can a crime, action, or individual person be equal to another? These types of questions characters are also foregrounded by the play’s title. The phrase Measure for Measure emphasizes “amounts” or quantities set up on two sides that we are encouraged to see as being of evenly balanced. In this regard, the title invokes multiple sense of the word measure, including units of music and poetry, but also the typical image for fair judgment, the scales. In early modern iconography, these were usually held up by the figure of Justice, blindfolded so as not to rule prejudicially, and making judgments based on the weights on either side.

In the time I have left today, I aim to show the pay-off and pleasures of close reading, by showing how the figures of chiasmus and syncrisis represent the scales of justice in poetic form. The issue of whether one thing can be held up as equal to another, different thing is part of the play’s basic dna; written into its linguistic structure and aesthetic features, they encourage us to notice how variables shift in language-based equations, and they can seduce us into accepting the social logic those equations produce. Even if we don’t think the math is correct, we may be so dazzled and impressed by the number of them — and the sheer amount of work that went into their construction — that we acquiesce to outcomes that are deeply problematic.

I’m going to work through this basic claim in two parts. In the first, “Poets and Politicians,” I’ll set the play aside and discuss the important social role that Shakespeare’s contemporaries ascribed to poetry and drama, namely these genres’ capacity for promoting or reproaching those in power. I’ll also attend briefly to some details about the two people who ruled England during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin and successor James I of England (also James VI of Scotland), monarchs whose respective reigns effectively straddled the composition and first performances of the play. In the second part, “Changelings and Changing Places” I’ll turn to a reading of Shakespeare’s persistent use of figures and tropes in Measure for Measure. I will suggest that its outcomes are not the impartial verdicts of a judge using balanced weights and measures, but instead a series of skillful cons by a powerful hypocrite; the play’s poetic justice is not an achievement of genuine balance, but a master class in pulling off a bait-and-switch.

I. Poets and Politics

I told you that Shakespeare’s play is full of chiasmus and syncrisis. You may be wondering how Shakespeare, a poet of “small latin and less greek” would have known about these devices. For many early modern poets, that knowledge came from reading the poetry of the ancients in those languages, though probably more often in translation than not. Just as often, that knowledge came from reading poetry manuals like this one, George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie.

As you can see here, this was printed in 1589, the same year Shakespeare wrote some of his earliest poems and plays. [Venus and Adonis and Comedy of Errors].

In Book One of The Arte of English Poesy, Puttenham covers the history of poetry and the role of the poet in ancient and early modern societies. In the third chapter of this book, he goes so far as to claim that “Poets were the first priests, the first prophets and the first legislators and politicians in the world.” More specifically, he asserts that poet played key roles in the civilizing practices of government; poets were “aged and grave men, and of much wisdom and experience in th’affairs of the world, the first lawmakers to the people and the first politicians, devising all expedient means for the establishment of Commonwealth, to hold and contain the people in order and duty by force and virtue of good and wholesome laws.”

Along these lines, Puttenham describes poetry as having a key function in honoring “great princes and dominators” as well as condemning the not-so-great ones. He devotes an entire chapter to the forms of poetry in which “the evill and outrageous behaviors of princes were reprehended.” According to Puttenham, one of the types of poetry best suited for doing this is dramatic poetry, and specifically, satiric, comic, and tragic plays in which Kings’ behaviors could be observed “upon lofty stages.”

The second book of Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie is on “Proportion Poetical.” In it, readers learned that poetry was not unlike math. Since writing a poem requires counting syllables and measuring sounds, poems are basically equations whose variables are words of differing lengths organized into something even and pleasing. He uses the language of weights and measures here and then, in a later chapter, explain that good poems will keep their “measures” balanced by keeping the number of syllables within them in “commendable proportion.”

Book Two also covers one of the ways poets made proportion extra meaningful, counting syllables strategically to create what he calls “geometrical figures.” On the left side of this page you can see a variety of types of shapes whose form can recreate or reinforce a poem’s basic content. On the right side of the page he provides an example. This one is about an emperor’s wealth & conquests and its lines vary in length so that they appear in the form of a rombus, or diamond. Two additional examples of poems in shapes relate similarly to his comments from Book One about using poetic forms to praise powerful people.

In the first, he praises Queen Elizabeth I in the form of “a Piller,” a figure he explains is appropriate for a poem about Elizabeth because the shape “signifies stay, support, rest, state and magnificence.” In order to construct it, you need lines of 6 to 8 syllables for the base, four syllables for the staff, and then 8 again for the top. He also praises the Queen in “A speciall and particular resemblance of her Maiestie to the Roundell,” a figure that can either be round or shaped like the beam that goes across a perfect circle.

This poetic tribute, in case it’s not clear, is shaped like the beam, though it’s also round in that it depicts the kingdom as a circle and begins with the circle and ends with it as well so that it’s circular in its theme and content.

I’m going to read parts of this one because of the way poem’s form artfully mirrors its content, but also because of the way it depicts Queen Elizabeth and her authority. When the speaker tells us that “She enuirons her people round,” we’re encouraged to see her simultaneously straddling them and sitting amongst them in a field,

Retaining them by oth and liegeance.
Within the pale of true obeysance:
Holding imparked…as it were,
Her people like to heards of deere.
Sitting among them in the middes
Where she allowes and bannes and bids
In what fashion she list and when,
The seruices of all her men.

Here, Elizabeth’s people are likened to deer inside a corral and the Queen is amidst her people alternately giving orders and freedoms to the men who serve her. This image is very much in line with the brand of sovereign power that Foucault describes as giving way a couple centuries later to disciplinary power. Sovereign power is a singular model of power in which all authority flows in one direction, top-down, from an omnipotent ruler whose royalty is a spectacle that draws everyone’s attention; Elizabeth is, Puttenham tells us “The same centre and middle pricke, / Whereto our deedes are drest so thicke.” “Pricke” here just means point, but 16th century poets used this word euphemistically fairly often, so the phallic symbol is a possible valence here too.

In Foucault’s account, monarchical power was predicated on the visibility of the sovereign figure, whereas disciplinary power shifted the objects of its gaze to make subjects visible and subject to examination. And so it seems remarkable that, in Puttenham’s poem, Elizabeth embodies both modes of power; it’s not just that she’s the spectacle, she’s also the surveyor Eyeing all her subjects; she’s able to supervise all of her people by virtue of a powerful panoptic breast. We’re told that:

Out of her breast as from an eye,
Issue the rayes incessantly
Of her iustice, bountie and might
Spreading abroad their beames so bright
And reflect not, till they attaine
The fardest part of her domaine,

Puttenham takes a well-known symbol of maternity and transforms it into an instrument of government whose architecture works much like Foucault described Jeremy Bentham’s prison.

But the description of what those eye beams do also exemplifies something described by one of Foucault’s rival theorists, Louis Althusser, who wrote about the concept of the “Ideological State Apparatus,” something that teaches individuals to recognize their status as subordinate subjects of the state through a process called “interpellation.” In Althusser’s version of power, the process of “interpellation” takes place through some kind of introductory ritual, what he refers to as “hailing.” In this poem, the hailing happens by way of the rays of Elizabeth’s eye-breast, which reach all parts of her kingdom; her people are basically in the cross hairs because there is simply nowhere to hide from their incessant emissions. Each beam reaches the ends of the kingdom and “makes eche subiect clearely see, / What he is bounded for to be/ To God his Prince and commonwealth, / His neighbour, kindred and to himselfe.”

From Elizabeth’s eye-breast, subjects do not get nourishment, but rather visibility and the ability to “clearely see” how indebted and bound to God, Queen, and Country they are. There is no I outside her Eye-Breast, because all individuals can only understand themselves in terms that make them beholden and subject to others. If we hearken back to Dr. Freitas’ lecture on The Hunger Games, we’ll remember Peeta’s desire to exist outside the Capitol’s gaze: “there’s still you, there’s still me, you see?” But in Puttenham’s imagined England, neither Katniss nor Peeta could ever be strictly themselves or “see” themselves that way; they are always already Elizabeth’s, made into beings by their persistent visibility to her eye.

This vision of sovereign power gives the monarch the capacity of disciplinary power, wherein every person can be examined for potential transgressions from norms and obedience. We know from Foucault that the monarch couldn’t actually have that kind of power on her own. And so in Elizabethan England, Puttenham’s poem is but one example of the effort that went into creating the impression that she could. All monarchs had mechanisms to maintain the fiction that they could indeed see all things — in Spain, it worked through the Inquisition, and for Elizabeth, whose kingdom was constantly threatened by a Spanish invasion, it was especially important for her to project an image of her kingdom and, as a symbol of it, her own body, as invulnerable to domestic threats and impenetrable by foreign foes.

At issue was her ability to reign over a small Protestant country with large and powerful Catholic enemies outside of England — France and Ireland in addition to Spain— and with a fair number of people within England who wanted nothing better than for the Queen to be replaced by a ruler who supported Catholicism. Elizabeth succeeded in some measures because of an extensive spy network for both foreign and domestic enemies alongside a public relations campaign that promoted her strength and status as The Virgin Queen — that is, rather than allow the narrative of herself as a weak woman who hadn’t married and couldn’t produce a lawful heir to the throne to rule after her death, she needed to project the image of a monarch who remained unmarried so as not to dilute the brand by getting tied down by a foreign prince. As the Virgin Queen, she could present herself as a Protestant replacement to the Virgin Mary and as the singularly powerful monarch, a chaste and devoted wife to England.

She promoted this narrative in speeches before her Parliament and in widely disseminated proclamations; she also wrote poems that projected the image of a strong independent England that could not be invaded (even though it lacked a standing army that could protect it once its borders were breached). Her media blitz also included the commissioning of multiple portraits to emphasize various features of her ruling style. In the Ditchley Portrait, she has all of Europe underfoot . In the Armada Portrait, the painter shows the Spanish fleet on the left side as it moves swiftly toward England; in the right side, we see how divine intervention, in the form of a storm, destroys the fleet and leaves Elizabeth calmly seated with the world in her palm.

And then finally, in the Rainbow portrait, we see something like Puttenham’s vision of the Queen’s domestic rule: She is merely one body with only two eyes, but the body politic of England has eyes and ears everywhere . Go ahead and transgress; but know that she will see or hear of it.

Why do I spend so much time talking about Queen Elizabeth I and the writer of a treatise on poetry when this is supposed to be a lecture on Shakespeare and Measure for Measure, a play written just after the Queen’s death? Well, a couple reasons. First, Puttenham teaches us Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood poets as political philosophers invested in matters of law and the behavior of citizens; plays were understood to be a form of poetry that was particularly well suited for praising and reprimanding figures of political authority. Queen Elizabeth’s methods for keeping order and Puttenham’s apparent praise of them is important because Measure for Measure was likely written just before or shortly after her death. If the play did not obviously register as a play about her particular modes of maintaining control in 1604, it still may have resonated as a work about the transfer of power from one sovereign figure to another. In Vincentio’s hand-off to Angelo, the play takes up the question of how subjects adjust to political transitions, and invites us to witness how one authority may or may not be an equal substitute for the previous one. As I’ll discuss in the remainder of this lecture, this is just one kind of substitute at work in Measure for Measure, which, just like Puttenham’s roundel, uses poetic form in strategic proportions to comment upon matters of justice and tyrannical sovereignty.


In order to think more deeply about how the style of Shakespeare’s play serves its exploration of statecraft, I want briefly turn back to the Arte of English Poesie and look for a second at Book Three,which covers rhetorical figures and literary devices. It is here that Puttenham describes the figure of chiasmus, one the devices I noted was pervasive in Measure for Measure.

Of one example of Chiasmus, “peace brings war and war brings peace,” he tells us, “We haue a figure which takes a couple of words to play with in a verse, and by making them to chaunge and shift one into others place they do very pretily exchange and shift the sence.”

After identifying the clever re-ordering of the key words in this and a few other examples, Puttenham goes on to institute his own change, replacing the Latin and Greek names for the device with an English term he likes better.

He says, “I had rather haue him called the Changeling nothing at all sweruing from his originall, and much more aptly to the purpose, and pleasanter to beare in memory: specially for our Ladies and pretie mistresses in Court, for whose learning I write, because it is a terme often in their mouthes, and alluding to the opinion of Nurses, who are wont to say, that the Fayries vse[d] to steale the fairest children out of their cradles, and put other ill fauoured in their places, which they called changelings, or Elfs.” Here, Puttenham decides to call this literary device of swapping the order of words “the changeling” because of the fairy lore that women in court talk about, where a fairy steals a child from a cradle and replaces it with an elf. The analogy then is that poets do something similar when they use chiasmus, rearranging the order of the words in the repeated clause, and there’s a fair amount of distaste in his comparison. It is a weird comparison, and a weird way to talk about poetry. But, you may have heard that Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and as you’ve probably guessed, the figure of the changeling resonates with Measure for Measure in more ways than one.

Let’s start with the most basic and plot-based forms of swapping-out that Shakespeare is engaged in in Measure for Measure. In the 16th and 17th century, plays were subject to censorship by an appointed official called the Master of Revels. If a playwright wrote something that might get people riled up about religion or made real-life figures look bad, the Master of Revels would ensure those parts were removed before the play was performed. This aspect applied more stringently to material that might be see to criticize the ruling monarch. If Shakespeare wanted to scrutinize sovereign power, he could appease the master of revels by setting his play in the distant past, in another country, and/or by projecting the suspect qualities onto lesser figures, say a Duke.

Duke is the highest aristocratic title in the English social structure, but the power it entailed was primarily local and legislative; he served automatically in the House of Lords in Parliament, where he and his elected compatriots in the House of Commons could debate and pass laws. In his own shire, the laws were enforced by local officials such as the sheriff and constable, elected by the people therein to serve for a period of time, and represented in the play by men like Elbow.

The Duke’s decision to appoint a deputy to rule in his absence is of course another kind of paralleling by substitution that we see in play. The play’s first scene makes quite a bit of noise about this decision in part so that we notice the oddness of Vincentio’s choice. He goes on and on about Escalus’ experience and qualifications, only to then quickly declare that the office will go to Angelo, a man who has less of both.

So to recap, Vienna ≠ London and Austria ≠ England. But you might note that nobody in the play has an English name, but nobody really has an Austrian one either. So even though these places aren’t the same, spectators are still encouraged to imagine the former as a proxy for the latter. Along the same lines, then, Dukes≠ Kings, but they provide one way to present a measure of the King’s authority without addressing it directly. Finally, Angelo ≠ Vincentio; he’s not even equal to Escalus, but he’s nonetheless put above Escalus in power and given authority equal to the Duke’s in Act 1. Then there’s the other equations set in motion by the Duke’s absence. He puts on the disguise of a Friar, and though he’s not actually a friar, he takes on the friars’ function. In this disguise and in Vincentio’s explanation for putting it on, Shakespeare also gives some subtle signals that he intends for Vincentio as an analogue for James I.

The frocked Vincentio, we’ll recall, is treated as a spiritual advisor and called “Father” by many of the characters who address him. King James often presented himself as a father in his published treatises on government, writing in The True Law of Free Monarchies that the king was “a natural father” to his people, and that in “his fatherly duty is bound to care for the nourishing, education, and virtuous government of his children.” He observed further that Kings needed look out for his people’s welfare “as the kindly father ought to forsee all inconvenients and dangers to that may arise towards his children, and with the hazard of his own person press to prevent the same.” Kings should be measured in punishing those who transgress so as to help them improve, just as “the father’s wrath and correction upon any of his children that offendeth ought to be by a fatherly chastisement seasoned with pity, as long as there is hope for amendment with them.” And James also claimed that a king should encourage those amendments like “a good pastor, [and] go out and in before his people.” All of these claims resonate with Vincentio in disguise, speaking sternly to Claudio during his captivity, for instance, and also with Vincentio out of disguise as he punishes and pardons various men at the end.

Shakespeare also seems to invoke James I in Vincentio’s comments in Act 1, “I love the people, But do not like to stage me to their eyes” (68–70). In Basilikon Doron, a treatise on monarchy that James wrote and dedicated to his actual son, James acknowledged that “The King is as one set on a stage, whose smallest action all the people gazingly behold,” but he also hated crowds and avoided going out amongst the people when he could. This dislike of assemblies was at a high in the year Measure for Measure was performed at court, because of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt by radical Catholics to blow up the Parliament and the King along with it.

Before he was named Elizabeth’s successor, many subjects knew James I as James VI of Scotland and the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who was, in the 1580s, imprisoned by Elizabeth and later executed for her role in one of the early plots to take the Queen’s life and reinstate Catholicism. James himself was raised to be a staunch protestant, but he had married a Catholic Queen. Catholics who had been hiding, heavily fined, or otherwise persecuted under Elizabeth hoped to see more lenient policies towards Catholic from the Protestant king; militant protestants hoped he’d be harder on Catholics at home and incite new conflicts with Catholics abroad. The warmongers were quickly disappointed when he initiated peaceful Treaty of London, ending war with both France and Spain.

Although he effectively squashed foreign threats with diplomacy, the gunpowder plot made clear that he needed to do more to alleviate domestic unrest. He doubled-down on a rhetoric that he deployed often in his early writings, that monarchs were invincible to earthly threats by virtue of their godly power. In The True Laws of Free Monarchy, he wrote “Kings are called gods by the prophetical king David because they sit upon God his throne in the earth and have the count of their administration to give unto him. Their office is to minister justice and judgment to the people…to advance the good and punish the evil…to establish good laws to his people and procure the obedience to the same, procure peace, and decide all controversies, to take vengeance of them that do evil…” And though Kings in England were subject to the tenets of common law, his treatises on Scotland insisted they were above it: because Kings existed before parliaments, he claimed, “Kings were the authors and makers of the laws, and not the laws [makers] of kings.”

(Did you see what he did there? Three-pronged chiasmus, not to show the equality of kings and common law, but to claim his own superiority to it.)

From this point, James argued that “the king is overlord of the whole land, so he is master over every person that inhabiteth the same, having power over the life and death of every one of them.” This is a explicit statement of sovereign power, and it should come as no surprise that the perpetrators of the Gunpowder plot were tortured and held up as public examples of what happened to those who challenged it. But this model of power is also what makes Vincentio’s disguise so compelling; if James stayed out of public eye, his dramatic stand-in dons a costume that mimics disciplinary power, inverting the object of the gaze from monarch to subject; it takes eyes off of himself and allows him to hide, but also to move about and spy on his people.

Vincentio is not the only potential analogue for James in the play, however. At the time of its composition, the new King was still a bit of an unknown, and his first acts of governance were necessitated by the fact that he inherited a kingdom in the middle of a public health crisis. The plague hit in 1603, delaying his arrival down from Scotland, and requiring the passage of a number of ordinances aimed at mitigating the spread of disease. These measures included the razing of public housing and the temporary shut down of places that attracted crowds, including the brothels and the playhouses just outside the city.

Perhaps fittingly, he described his role as King in a 1604 publication as “the proper physician of his Politick Body, to purge it of all those diseases by medicines meet for the same, as by a certain mild and yet just form of government.” These basic facts would have some resonance with Angelo’s predicament in the play. At the point at which he makes Angelo deputy, Vincentio admits to presiding over 14 years of relative laxity. During this time, the brothels have flourished and so has syphilis. It’s Anglo’s job to clean up the city to protect his citizens’ bodies from contracting disease and their souls from the sins in which those diseases are carried.

The spectacles that we witness as a result of the changes he initiates in enforcing “sleeping” statues are not exactly public torture; instead, we see examples of correction in which some people lose the source of livelihoods and other lose their lives. Notably, Claudio’s execution isn’t made public, for the disciplinary model is made more effective by limiting what others see. And of course, this beheading is yet another one of the Duke’s substitutions, for it’s not Claudio’s head that’s cut off, but Ragozine’s, and Ragozine has taken the place of Barnadine, who is originally supposed to take Claudio’s place. Here, as in other instances of swapping people out for others, we must contemplate the different variables that are being changed out and consider whether they more or less equal in weight.

Take, for instance, the character of Pompey who starts the play as an employee of the brothel. After he’s rounded up with the others for criminal activity, he’s given a new position working as an apprentice to the executioner. The job makes sense: when the provost asks him if he can cut off a man’s head, he assures him that he has been “an unlawful bawd” but will be “a lawful hangman” using syncrisis to set up the parameters of his transition from sex trader to state agent of punishment. He further sets up another parallel by noting that both trades work by cutting off heads, that is, invoking the cutting of “maidenheads” and the loss of virginity central to his former profession. The real executioner objects to his appointment, saying Pompey “will discredit” his noble trade, but the Provost insists: “Go to you, sir,” he says; “you weigh equally; a feather will turn the scale.”

On the subject of intact maidenhood, we also see cases made for and against the equality of substitutions in Isabella’s visits to Angelo’s chamber in Act 2, when she attempts to free her brother by interceding on his behalf. She urges him to let Claudio’s fault die instead of Claudio’s body, but Angelo refuses this suggested substitution, and as we see,their exchanges make use of chiasmus and syncrisis in multiple instances:

These imagined-scenarios where one person assumes the place of another continue into the second meeting they have in Scene 4. Angelo has already admitted that Isabella has stirred up feelings within him, and before she arrives, he tells us he’s been praying and thinking, in that order, and also in reverse order. All that thinking and praying has also led him to a new sense of balance: if Isabella relinquishes her maidenhood to him, she will be guilty of the same crime as her brother, but because he finds Isabella desirable, Angelo will free Claudio’s body if she gives him hers. Again these bodily parallels and substitutions are signaled poetically by syncrisis and chiasmus: Angelo: “Plainly conceive I love you.” Isabella: My brother did love Juliet: “And you tell me that he shall die for it.” Angelo: He shall not, Isabell if you give me love.”

The equation that he poses is that she and Angelo performing an act evens out the act committed by Claudio and Juliette. But Isabella rejects its logic and then uses the proposal as leverage. If he won’t pardon Claudio, she will “with an outstretched throat tell the world aloud What man [he is].”

In response to this threat, Angelo stops talking about the equality of actions and instead throws around his own political weight. “Who will believe thee Isabel,” he asks, tauntingly, tipping the scales because “[his] false overweighs [her] true” (2.4.171). When he leaves, Isabella admits he is right that nobody will believe her. But she doesn’t capitulate to the terms of his bargain; instead, she re-affirms her own values and reminds herself and us that her chastity is worth more to her than even her brother.

While this conversation has been happening, Claudio is stuck in prison getting advised by the friar. The disguised Duke has talked him into accepting death as a positive outcome, and Claudio eventually cops to his logic, also using the figures of syncrisis and chiasmus.

He says, “To sue to live, I find I seek to die, and seeking death, find life” (3.1.42–43). He continues with resolve after learning of Angelo’s indecent proposal, agreeing with his sister and echoing the 10 Commandments, in his declaration “thou shalt not do’t” (3.1.104). After he considers how bad the afterlife might be, however, he changes his mind: “What sin you do to save a brother’s life / Nature dispenses with the deed so far / That it becomes a virtue.” Once again, a man supplies an equation in which two wrongs make a right. Yet Isabella is either too pure or too good at math to accept it. She calls her brother a beast, and using syncrisis herself, “a faithless coward and dishonest wretch.”

It’s a terrible moment in the play because it’s suddenly clear that Isabella is utterly alone. Nobody is equal to her in virtue and so she has nobody but herself to advocate for the chastity that she has valued so much from the beginning of the play. But it’s also true that, in a world in which the monarch’s eyes are everywhere, Isabella isn’t physically alone; she’s being watched by the Duke and he uses this moment to make himself known. Just when we are wholly demoralized by the disgusting substitution that both Angelo and Claudio have embraced, the Duke appears and appears to save us from it. He relays the backstory about Mariana, her lost dowry, and her subsequent abandonment and slander by Angelo. Mariana’s existence and her inexplicable (if not perverse) desire for Angelo is the key to the Duke’s alternate version of substitution: setting up what is known as a “bed trick,” a familiar trope in the Old Testament and a fair number of other early modern plays, Isabella is told to agree to have sex with Angelo. It must happen quickly, in the dark, and in silence, the Duke explains, because “We shall advise this wronged maid to stead up your appointment, go in your place.”

As one of three variables in this bed-trick, Mariana is the most obvious plot equivalent of chiasmus, the poetical figure of the Changeling. Angelo will think it’s the fair Isabella he’s with but instead it will be Mariana. Not quite an elf, but also not the fair woman he believes he is with. In multiple syncretic phrases, the Duke Gives Isabella a series of commands and then describes the benefits of this substitution: “by this is your brother saved, your honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled.”

This list of outcomes, described as “scaling,” or making scales register equal weights, invites us to see the swap of Mariana’s body for Isabella’s as a switch between equals and a net positive, an equation that leads to justice and in fact multiplies happiness — all while keeping Isabella’s number of sexual partners at zero.

Because we generally like the accounting, we might overlook that this is fuzzy math. We may even be convinced that the Duke’s proposal is morally superior to Angelo’s indecent proposal. And yet: just as Angelo effectively makes Isabella responsible for her brother’s illegal act, so too does the Duke insist that she is the key to fixing Angelo’s dishonorable ones; he tells her “It is a rupture that you may easily heal” of Mariana’s fate and that Angelo’s correction “lies much in your holding up.” In this way, he puts the onus on Isabella for solving problems she didn’t create, something that will happen again later when Mariana begs her to plead for Angelo’s life at the end.

It’s bad math not only because it treats distinct women as replaceable variables but also because it effectively removes Angelo’s ability to consent to activities involving his own body. As Mariana explains the unequal footing that results at the play’s final scene, “I have known my husband, / yet my husband knows not that he ever knew me.” Legally speaking, Angelo has not been raped in the terms of the law in early modern England. Rape was understood “in terms of property theft rather than as a violation of a person.” As Nazife Bashar notes, “the law was geared to protect the property of the wealthy, as well as to safeguard bloodline and family interests” (31). Virginity was amongst the many “goods” that had to be protected, with women legally counted as part of that property, belonging to a husband or a father, rather than the owner of an autonomous will and body. But the definition of the crime was also undergoing a shift around the middle of the sixteenth century; more and more, legal treatises were describing rape as a sexual crime and emphasizing “the victim’s lack of consent, …innocence, morality, [and] resistance.”[1] But even with this evolving emphasis on volition, the play seems not to want to understand Angelo as a victim. Setting the legality of what happens to him aside, it is difficult to sympathize with him because he is politically powerful in the play and has been — and continues to be — a hypocrite and despicable person. As the Duke explains to justify his trick, it is not that he is mocking Mariana with a husband, it’s that Angelo had already mocked her and brought the mockery of a blind encounter on himself.

And yet, if we think more about the Duke’s smug claim, we’ll see that the outcome fundamentally lacks balance. Mariana is married to a man who has spurned her as an apparent reward for her virtue and patience, whereas Angelo’s marriage to her figures as a corrective and punishment. Is this what measure in proportion looks like? Measure still for measure? And what of Lucio, whose mouthing off about the Duke’s sketchy past gets him in at least as much trouble as his abandonment of Kate Keepdown, even though that sketchy past is never disproven and is only declared to be false by the Duke himself, a man who engages often in deliberate-falsehoods. Aren’t the women who are brought into these relationships also punished by them? Only Claudio and Julietta seem to be in a marriage where its basic tenets and benefits are shared.

The fact that marriage is otherwise held up as something grave and heavy as death also makes us wonder how it can be for Isabella, in the Duke’s words, “a motion that much imports your good”? Along these lines, is not just the motions of the Duke, but also his motives that should concern us. He has apparently orchestrated all of these plots, transforming apparent chaos into neat performances of punishment and reward through artful language and skillful substitutions. By the fourth act, we begin to suspect that he put Angelo in charge not to enforce long-sleeping laws, but to entrap him and ensure he is appropriately punished for acts long past. After all, why else would he have put a man he knows as a villain in charge during his made-up absence? But if this has been his plan all along, he has lied to a religious figure in addition to impersonating one, and he has put out false rumors and encouraged his people to believe false information throughout.

By some measures, he bests Claudio at being a hypocrite and a coward, allowing venereal disease to prosper and forcing another man to shut-down the brothels that he himself refused to deal with for more than a decade. Once they’ve been shuttered, he has no problem denouncing those who were once part of the thriving sex-industry, but at the same time, is himself engaged in arranging sexual encounter between one willing participant and another who is deceived into taking part. Even if all of this isn’t pre-meditated, Isabella’s role in the scheme is problematic, even as her chastity remains in tact. Her love for her brother and her desire to control her own sexuality are exploited to ameliorate the consequences of acts committed by other people. And though the Duke could alleviate her anxieties and guilt by confiding in her about his plan, he maintains his secrecy right to the end, giving credence to Lucio’s accusations of his “dark corners” and allowing Isabella to experience the most trauma possible in regards to her brother’s death.

Although the ending suggests that in marrying the Duke, she would be well served, we have to make note of how he has treated her throughout the play and also remember that to do so would require giving up her aspirations to join a religious order. We are never given any indication that she wanted to do anything other than this, though it is also true that Shakespeare never really gives us a full measure of her character. Without that, it’s hard to discern whether being a chaste nun is a worse outcome than being a Duke’s wife. But even if we think so, though, we can’t help but doubt that the Duke is an equal match for her. He’s significantly older, and, even if we don’t believe Lucio’s stories, we know the Duke has long enabled behaviors in others that Isabella wants nothing to do with. Is an outcome that places them together really in keeping with the balanced weighing and measuring that the Duke claims to be doing? Isabella does not the Duke’s engineered mercy for herself, but he puts her in a position in which she is made to feel responsible for others and complicit in a deceptive scheme, and so even if she doesn’t lose her virginity, he tacitly allows her to taint her own virtue to further his ends.

In his use of chiasmus and syncrisis, Shakespeare is, like the Duke, asking us to consider two distinct things — bedfellows, actions, crimes — and determine whether replacing one with another will produce a balanced and in some sense ideal outcome. The playwright’s wordplay is adept and so is the Duke’s hand. That wordplay can trick us into acceptance, or it can push us, as it does Isabella in those last 100 lines, to weigh things very carefully for ourselves before accepting the equation Vincentio offers. Without any lines indicating her consent, the actress who plays Isabella can nod, take his hand when he demands it, and follow him off stage to the palace. She can also refuse. She can, as in the last production I saw, shake his hand and make her way alone back to the Nunnery. In support of this outcome, we might note that in saying nothing, Isabella ignores the order offered by the Duke and reverts back to the chiastic rules of her religious order: “if you speak you must not show your face, / Or if you show your face, you must not speak” (1.4.12–13).

Wrested from performance, the text of the play may leave us feeling unsettled or unresolved; to use Puttenham’s terms, that we’re left not with something fair, but something “ill-favoured.” Still, I think in this unsettling of neat conclusions, the text is actually more productive of critical thinking than some of Shakespeare’s other comedies, plays that produce less immediate anxiety but that nonetheless feature matches that should be equally troubling. In any event, the idea that plays could be used both to praise figures of authority and to expose their ill dealings is clear, and I hope in your discussion sections you can talk more about how the play works to make us cognizant of and even complicit in those dealings.

I’ll leave off here with one last nugget of history that isn’t neatly comparable to the play but must be said anyway, in the spirit of Isabella’s desire to expose the bad character of those who occupy positions of authority. I have to tell you that George Puttenham, author of the Arte of English Poesie was not just an expert on poetry in Elizabethan England; he was also at one time a law student at Middle Temple, and for much of his life, on the wrong side of the law. Several decades before his treatise was published, he went through a scandalous divorce from his wife, Lady Elizabeth Windsor, a split allowed on the grounds of his adultery with her servants, plural. In at least three separate accounts, these encounters involved forcible acts of abduction, beatings, and rape. Some also resulted in pregnancies, violent threats, and the use of Lady Windsor’s fortune for hush money.

This is what that “what’s yours is mine” rhetoric could look like in practice.

Puttenham went to prison multiple times, mostly for not paying alimony, but also for allegedly slandering the Queen and plotting the assassination of her secretary. Though he was cleared of the charge of treason eventually, he had his hands burnt and was threatened with the loss of his ears. More certainly, he was excommunicated from the Anglican church for repeated missed alimony payments, and he died penniless.[2] These last facts are not poetic or proportionate justice for a lifetime of abusing others, particularly women. And the fact that he wrote a compelling treatise on poetry aimed at female readers does not outweigh the negative force of his malevolent acts. I won’t try to get back to the play with some glib rhetorical flourish. But because Puttenham teaches us to see poetry as a vehicle in which “the evill and outrageous behaviors of princes were reprehended,” it seems only right that I end with his own outrageous behaviors. To conclude in this way avoids any pretense of balance between text and subtext; but I think, given the scales Shakespeare presents to us, that’s for the best.

[1] “Rape in England between 1550 and 1700” in The Sexual Dynamics of History: Men’s Power, Women’s Resistance (London: Pluto Press, 1983).

[2] “Introduction,” The Art of English Poesy By George Puttenham, Ed. Frank Whigham, Wayne A. Rebhorn (Cornell UP, 2007) 8–11.

Vim, Ph.D.

Early Modernist, Associate Prof, college hoops fan, crazy cat lady. Tweeting out of conviction or exhaustion or both. Views my own. My head hurts.