Measure for Measure: Who isn’t an asshole?

I’m not entirely sure in what direction I would like to take this post—reading any Shakespeare for the first time is difficult. Perhaps I should focus on my reactions and internal responses to Shakespeare as a personal stimulus? This act was surely funny and strange (both in the Mistress’s name and with the first “Gentleman’s” not-so-gentlemanly accusations (1.2.29-32), conversation (1.2.40-71), and company (1.2.39). I love the intensity of moral banter, presumably in a not-so-virtuous section of Vienna:

“FIRST GENTLEMEN: And though the velvet. Thou art good velvet,/ thou’rt a three-piled piece, I warrant thee. I had as lief be a/ list of an English kersey as be piled as thou art pilled, for a/ French velvet. Do I speak feelingly now?” (1.2.29-32)

These are no doubt some very intense words. Does this argument call out Lucio as a representative of the aristocracy? I’m not too sure of Lucio’s political or economic standing, but he has acquired debt (1.2.112), perhaps meaning he deals with larger sums of money (he also comparatively has a name instead of the absence of one, like either “Gentleman”). I would also like to point out that Lucio and the first such Gentleman’s conversation advances from ingenuous slighting, into a sort of vile taunting the very moment the mistress enters the scene. I do not know exactly what to read into what Shakespeare could be saying, but we can see a kind of hetero over-the-topness to their quips, either with the goal to disenfranchise the mistress’s pride, or in order to try to build back up their own. For example, is Lucio overcompensating for his existence as someone who is sanctimonious, when he ignores the mistress’s humanity in order to refer to her as: “. . .”Madam Mitigation. . ./ [who he] purchased. . .many diseases [from].” (1.2.40)

But regardless of the observations I can make, I am not ready to truly look at this play comfortably, because I am not fully grasping the intricacies of the plot. Within the first act, we see Measure for Measure as a narrative primarily associating itself with the balance or lack thereof between power and morality.

I have a question though, would I be correct in suggesting Claudio’s desire for his sister Isabella to flirtatiously insinuate sexual desire for Angelo? I mean, the tick-tack comment is explained to us by the Norton Anthology’s footnotes, but does he wish her to do absolutely anything she must in order to keep him alive? Is he willing to sacrifice her devotion to God, or does he merely want her to do her best to intellectually persuade Angelo not to kill him? I cannot see how there would be any way for a young girl to persuade the lord of a city to go against an official judgment on words alone. Is Claudio, in essence, asking Isabella to be like the mistress, a pawn or a device within a corrupt male-dominated society? I’m not sure, and I don’t want to judge the character of anyone just yet because I would like to see more of the story played out, but so far, I hardly see a thread of innocence by anyone. Is this why the Duke feels like something should be done? And even if the Duke’s plan is necessary, is he even going about it in the right way? I’m very confused, but this seems to be a very gripping play so far.


One thought on “Measure for Measure: Who isn’t an asshole?

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    Perhaps the Duke? In class today, we seemed to have some consensus that the duke is a character who acts to the benefit of others–but perhaps not? I think it's a good question to ask, about which figures serve themselves, and which seem to be dedicated to the welfare of others? What makes a good ruler, too? The person who sacrifices, or the one who adheres to his own principles?


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