Moral chaos begets plot chaos

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.

So unfair.

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!


3 thoughts on “Moral chaos begets plot chaos

  1. cvenho

    You make a very interesting point about how the chaos of the plot reflects the society's moral character. There's certainly something fishy and duplicitous about the fact that out of all this debauchery, Claudio's relatively minor offense might cost him his life. I'm curious to see how Shakespeare tackles the problem of governmental enforcement of morality; clearly prostitution and murder should not be condoned, but how can the government regulate the its people's inner lives? After all, cultural decadence is merely an outward manifestation of people's inner lives.

  2. Gianna

    Interesting point, I loved how you tied in current events to the play's reading. It also set me thinking about how relevant the play is to the current ban on federal funding on planned parenthood.

  3. Steven Wagner

    "Moral chaos" is a good way of referring to the predicament left to the leaders of Vienna. While now we can discuss the morality of prostitution and whether it is truly immoral for two consenting, fully conscious human beings to do whatever they want for each other, I won't fault them for considering such things as immoral so long ago. I will humor the inarguability of the morality of the brothel. Instead, what I'm getting from your post is that confusion about the morality of sex in this play has falsely condemned Claudio to the sentence of a true criminal. It's a tragedy, that in looking to "get tough" on sexual immorality, someone not guilty of any truly immoral crime must be the scapegoat.


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