The Deviance of Restraint

After reading Act I of Measure for Measure it is already apparent that the main themes of this play will involve deception, the striving for power, and sexuality as it is viewed in the personal and public realm. However, what seems to be most stressed at this early stage of the play is the way in which society’s strict social mores can often times create an effect quite opposite to its intended purpose. Instead of proliferating virtue among the people, these strict mores can condemn what would otherwise be viewed as true love, and in turn, create an environment in which suppressed sexuality leads to sexual deviancy. Evidence of this effect is seen when Claudio reveals the truth about his relationship with Juliet when he states, “Thus stands it with me. Upon a true contract, I got possession of Juliet’s bed. You know the lady; she is fast my wife, save that we do the denunciation lack of outward order” (1.2. 122-126). Here, the outrageous nature of the charges against Claudio is exemplified as he recounts his promise to Juliet, who,upon gaining permission from her parents, he promised to marry. Thus, while Claudio’s loving relations with Juliet are condemned by Angelo, it seems to be implied, that despite the outward sanctions against the brothels in the area, the trade will continue to flourish due to the business of the wealthy and powerful politicians who are also their most frequent customers, as referenced in Pompey’s statement to Mistress Overdone in Scene 1.2 of, “Come, fear not you. Good counsellors lack no clients. Though you change your place, you need not change your trade” (1.2. 87-89) . Further, the Duke’s exchange with the Friar also implies the prevalence of sexual deviancy among the politicians who impose the strict laws condemning what they secretly practice. When the Duke admits to the Friar that he wishes to disguise himself in a habit in order to spy on Angelo, his statement that, “…Lord Angelo is precise, stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses that his blood flows, or that is appetite is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see if power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.4. 50-54), reveals his suspicions about how the seductive power of authority will effect Angelo. Thus, it seems that Shakespeare is commenting on the corrupting quality of power that causes rulers to impose the strictest of laws upon their own citizens, all the while, leaving the ruler to become the greatest offender of these rules. This being so, it will be interesting to see how this theme is further discussed in the remainder of the play, where as the Introduction reveals, we will see Angelo proposition Isabella in an attempt to utilize his authority to gain power in the sexual realm and fulfill his deviant desire to corrupt the innocent and the chaste.

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One thought on “The Deviance of Restraint

  1. cvenho

    You bring up some important points here. The Duke's subterfuge when he disguises himself as a monk while he tests Angelo's moral fiber completely contradicts Christ's teaching of measure for measure in the Sermon on the Mount. In the scripture we're told that as we judge so shall we be judged, which also recalls Angelo's harsh condemnation of Claudio for lustful faults that he also shares–ironically for Claudio's sister. The Buddha says something similar to Christ in the Dhammapada: "Look to your own faults, what you have done or left undone. Do not dwell on the faults of others."

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