The Ironic Role of Death

I believe it is necessary to focus on the idea of death in Measure for Measure and how it is the central focus for the entirety of the play. With Claudio’s life at stake from the beginning, it becomes the duties of others around him to find alternatives to his death, like Isabella’s quest to free him with her good, strong virtues. We talked in class the other day about the rules of a comedy, specifically a Shakespearean comedy, and how they work in Measure for Measure. One key fact is the idea that there is a sense of limited time, or that we should forget or laugh at death.

At the beginning of Act III, death is mentioned several times, and it is extremely interesting to look at both the Duke’s and Isabella’s convincing arguments toward Claudio when it comes to the positive side of death. Claudio explains to the Duke that although he is prepared to die, he hopes to be pardoned by Angelo. Here the Duke tries to show a positive outlook on death:

DUKE: Thou art not certain,

For thy complexion shifts to strange effects

After the moon. If thou art rich thou’rt poor,

For like an ass whose back with ingots bows

Thou bear’st thy heavy riches but a journey

And death unloads thee….Thou hast nor youth nor age,

But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep,

Dreaming on both: for all thy blessed youth

Becomes as aged and doth beg the alms

Of palsied eld… (3.1.25-36)

Claudio thanks him and seems to convince the audience that he is ready. However, Isabella then enters and Claudio asks if there is a way to change the sentence. She too, tries to convince him death is better and that it is the only way.

ISABELLA: Therefore your best appointment make with speed,

Tomorrow you set on. (3.1.58).

And later,

ISABELLA: Yes, thou must die:
Thou art too noble to conserve a life…(3.1.86-88).

Both Isabella and the Duke here bring out selfish qualities. Yes, we are aware that the Duke is a trickster throughout the play, selfish and a coward, but Isabella seems to be a different story. She wants to stick to her virtues, even at the cost of her own brother. I found these passages and this scene in general fascinating because of the arguments both characters lend out to Claudio on why he should die and no longer fight for his life.

The ending of the play works in such a strange, comedic way, that it almost cancels this entire scene out. The Duke decides to use Barnadine, another prisoner, and to send his head as if it were Claudio’s. So after the Duke’s convincing speech to Claudio, here he wants to save his life.

I think the most confusing part of the entire play is how the Duke proposes to Isabella and it is implied that she accepts. This was extremely shocking because of her attempt throughout the play to keep her virtues and virginity. It doesn’t make sense why she would then leave the nunnery at the ending.

DUKE: What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

So bring us to our place, where we’ll show

What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know. (5.1.527-531).

These last sentences seem to imply taking her virginity, which was the one thing she tried to keep sacred throughout the play.

With everything, the play proves its comedic virtues, where the characters do wind up laughing at death. Since Claudio lives, everything seems to be okay, and Isabella is all for the end of her virginity and the nunnery. The irony is crazy but extremely interesting, to say the least.


One thought on “The Ironic Role of Death

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    Really great reflections here on death and its place in comedy, Zan, particularly on the heels of our discussion about comedy. It is remarkable how the play manages to banish death at the end–even in the character of Lucio, who turns torture and death (whipping and hanging) into a pair of sexually charged jokes!


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