Sexuality as a Spectrum in Measure for Measure

With just reading Act I, we can already tell that this is a play heavily based on sexuality, particularly character’s opinions on the matter. I noticed that there are a specific few characters that symbolize different beliefs about sexuality, and they can be seen as components of a sexuality spectrum.

I believe the spectrum is as follows (from liberal-> to conservative):

Mistress Overdone-> Claudio-> Angelo-> Isabella

Character: Mistress Overdone

Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 2 Liberal

Why does she belong in this spot?: Merely her name is a joke! Just by this title, Shakespeare makes it clear to the audience that her sexual prowess is too extreme (or too “overdone”) compared to the other characters. The fact that she runs a brothel adds to this of course, but her dialogue suggests that she knows no other existence when she hears about the proclamation in Act I, Scene II:

But shall all our houses of resort in the suburbs be
pulled down?

To the ground, mistress.

Why, here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth!
What shall become of me?

Her response isn’t “oh no, that’s awful” or something of that sort, its “what shall become of me?” Which could typically be seen as an extreme reaction, but in her case, its normal considering that sexuality is a big part of her life. Perhaps the only part of her life since her job incorporates a few key aspects of life: career, social status, and “leisure” activities.

Character: Claudio

Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 1 Liberal

Why does he belong in this spot?: As we know, Claudio faces punishment for impregnating Juliet out of wedlock. He wouldn’t be seen on the same level as Mistress Overdone since he isn’t involved with prostitution, but he DID have sex out of wedlock which is still seen as pretty scandalous for the time. Is he deserving of the punishment he will face? Of course not. Even though he couldn’t resist his sexual urges, he did have good intentions as he stated in this speech in Act I, Scene II:

Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta’s bed:
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order: this we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

Even though he plans on spending the rest of his life with her, he still did something that is seen is more liberal for the time; especially when compared to Angelo, and mainly his sister, Isabella. According to the logic of the time, perhaps the situation with Claudio serves as an example of why the city needs to be “cleaned up”.

Character: Angelo

Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 1 Conservative

Why does he belong in this spot?: Just like Mistress Overdone, perhaps his name is hinting at how he views sexuality. His name is close to “angel”, which is obviously a holy figure of the catholic religion. And what does the Catholic religion emphasize? The absence of anything fun (kidding, absence of before-marriage sex and brothels). His name mirrors/symbolizes his opinion about sex, and his effort to ban brothels and enforce a “no sex out of wedlock or else you will be punished” rule. But this raises a question: Is this genuine? Does he really feel this way about sex? Or he is just abusing his power in order to make a name for himself/for people to take him seriously about “cleaning up” the city? If this theory is true, obviously taking pleasure in destruction isn’t very “angelic” and his name can be taken as irony. And knowing Shakespeare, that’s plausible as well.

Character: Isabella

Level of Sexuality on Spectrum: Stage 2 Conservative

Why does she belong in this spot?: Here we have the other extreme on the spectrum. It’s unclear if Angelo truly has a conservative view on sexuality; her beliefs are made clear by her choice to be a nun. Just like Mistress Overdone (probably the only similarity between the two), her career is constant, and controls her social status and leisure activities. The first piece of dialogue we encounter of Isabella’s in Act I Scene IV shows a lot about her character:

And have you nuns no farther privileges?

Are not these large enough?

Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more;
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.

She is innocent, chaste, religious and wants MORE restraint: what’s more conservative than that? She represents everything that is good and pure; which according to Angelo, is more of what the city needs. She serves as a direct contrast to her brother, Claudio. It will definitely be interesting to see if she helps him out despite her own morals.


4 thoughts on “Sexuality as a Spectrum in Measure for Measure

  1. Tony Mancini

    This is a great classification for the diverse characters in Measure for Measure. I think Shakespeare was trying to represent a broad range of the types of people who were affected or affecting the movement back to sexual conservatism in London with Overdone, Claudio, Angelo, and Isabella. Isabella represents true Puritan values. Overdone represents the smut-peddling brothels. Angelo represents government appeasement towards the Puritans. Claudio is an unlucky, undeserving victim of the shift in values.

  2. lizvanburen

    I think this is a really creative and interesting way to organize this information. And I would agree with how you classified the characters. Just one comment – I believe that with Mistress Overdone, her reaction is quite legitimate. Not only is sex a huge part of her life, but this is her profession.Also, very interesting reasoning with Angelo: I like how you analyzed his name not only in his chastity, but also as subtle irony with his motives behind banning brothels, etc. I hadn't thought of it in that sense.

  3. Genevieve

    I really loved this post. I enjoyed how you classified the characters based on sexuality but didn't really judge them. I also agree with some of the comments before mine. I think Shakespeare was giving the audience a very large range of sexual characters. I also agree, while sex is a HUGE part of Mistress Overdone's life, it is also her profession which makes her that much more of a sexual character. She almost lives and breathes sex. Again, I really enjoyed reading this post a lot. You made a lot of good points and brought up topics I didn't even think of while reading this.

  4. Cyrus Mulready

    Very cool post, Jennifer! It will be interesting to see if we find anyone moving along this spectrum (Isabella, for instance) as the play concludes. What does it take for a person to move from one area of the spectrum to another?


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