Measure for Measure sets itself in a city of moral chaos and in the classical tradition of an order and chaos impulse. In fact Shakespeare’s structure for Measure for Measure employs early plot turns that cause confusion, disorder and the piece’s irony, humor, and indignant resolve from likely and unlikely denizens and citizens of Vienna.
The moral belt around the waist of Vienna’s citizenry has loosened in recent years, and the Duke has decided that it is time for it to be tightened. In act one we meet several characters who epitomize the Duke’s concern for his city’s moral wanderings. We meet two honorable men outside of a not so honorable place of business: a brothel. Lucio the libertine is there along with a bawd who until this day feared no man in any position whether it be a sexual one or a lawful one.
It is the bawd’s entrance that introduces an early and significant plot turn: “There’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all.” Here Mistress Overdone comes with news to which the two heedless Gentlemen pay attention. This plot turn is characterized by confusion and humor and the indignant responses of the two Gentlemen and Lucio. After the Mistress’s lines they dismiss her news to be false and exit dead set on proving her words to be gossip. Of course Mistress Overdone knows better and speaks truth. Now alone on stage, she sulks over the economic chaos that her prostitution business will endure: “Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.” (This makes you wonder whether Nevada’s fiscal problems don’t just have to do with its housing crisis.)
So far moral lines have been straight (pun intended) forward in the minds of the sanctimonious: Sex with a prostitute is bad, a woman prostituting herself is worse, and sexual diseases are the result of bad morals (not bacteria, viruses, and cheap condoms). But the plot turn that comes with Claudio’s entrance throws confusion into the story and into the question of moral truth. Claudio has not been carried off to prison because of murder or prostitution. He is to be locked up because the informal or “true contract” that he had in marriage with Julietta (one that had been accepted by the state) is now unacceptable. What was right (but really wrong) yesterday is now wrong, and what was really right yesterday is really wrong today.
Interestingly, the comedy was first performed in 1604, the second year of a new king’s rule. King James ushered in a new and more aggressive political culture particularly views that were less woman-friendly (to say the least). Is there a connection here? I hope our discussion in class touches on this!