Archive for the Measure for Measure Category

Legislated Morality?

Posted in Measure for Measure with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2009 by Saera

“Can you legislate morality?”

This is the question that Dr. Gurney, my Shakespeare instructor for this semester, asked the class as we began to study Measure for Measure. He saw the play as illustrating the complex dilemma of finding the balance between law and principle. Although he seemed to take it in a different direction and talk more about whether or not it was correct to legislate any type of morality. He saw the rules enforced by Angelo as being too strict, as being wrong to try to ‘tell’ someone how to live life. He briefly mentioned that perhaps making a law forbidding something makes that act more likely to be committed because the law increases people’s awareness of the act.

I believe that Measure for Measure actually deals more with the interplay between the heart and the law, and the hypocrisy that can result.  It explores the often hidden motives that we use to excuse our actions, how we excuse our sin by using the rules to judge our behavior rather than principle or God’s perspective.

Romans actually talks about the interplay between the law and our responses to it. Chapter 6 of Romans talks about how there is no sin where there is no law. BUT, this does not mean that the law is responsible for sin – rather, it means that the law simply makes the sin apparent. 

”  What shall we say, then? is the law sin? Certainly not! indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ” Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”

                                                                                                                                 – Romans 6: 7-13

So our sin is not directly caused by the law, but the law makes our sin very noticeable, and we become slaves to it if we live under the law only. But if we live according to the Spirit of God, we have freedom and in fact can live according to the law with the understanding that keeping the law does not save us but is something we can do to show our gratitute to God for the salvation He has provided for us.

 I believe that the characters Isabella, Angelo, and the Duke illustrate the idea of people becoming enslaved by the law and the law making their sin apparent. Angelo tries to uphold the law, but he fails in his own life, and becomes ensnared by sin. Isabella also tries to uphold the law, but for the purpose of benefiting herself, not God, so she becomes ensnared also by selfishness, which the law does not cause, but certainly makes apparent. The Duke does not try to enforce the law as much as Angelo, but he still does try to hold to the law (or at least, claims that he does), but in the end, he makes sure that he himself remains within the law (so he thinks) but he is willing to cause another person to stumble and break the law.  These characters demonstrate the attitude of categorizing acts by simply their external appearance rather than the motivations for their actions, or the reasons they are done.  Isabella does not judge things by whether God would approve or not, but simply by man’s law and whether humans would approve of her if she did whatever. Angelo is completely selfish and so has completely wrong reasons to act righteously – can you even have righteous acts without a righteous heart? He depends solely on his own power to keep the law. And the Duke seems to have no concern for others whatsoever, only himself. This is not at all righteous according to God, if Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second greatest commandment is to love one’s neighbor as he loves himself.

So, can morality be legislated? Yes. But only God’s Spirit can allow the necessary morality and ability to keep the law. There are certain laws that must be kept and deal with the external actions of humans such as murder, theft, harm. But other actions that deal with humans’  heart conditions cannot neccessarily be legislated  because only God can truly know men’s hearts, and while our actions do often reveal our intentions or attitudes, it is entirely possible to have good actions with sinful hearts.  Measure for Measure demonstrates this idea very well, and I believe it is a very strong indicator that men are answerable to a higher power, that man’s standard of judgement is very lacking, and that only God’s standards are just because He considers the heart as well as the actions.


Juliet and Isabella

Posted in Measure for Measure with tags , , , on March 1, 2009 by Saera

I think it is very interesting to compare two of Measure for Measure’s women, Juliet and Isabella. These women are vastly different, although they are cousins and both connected to Claudio.

Juliet is perhaps the only character in Measure for Measure who is willing to make selfless sacrifices for others. First, she gave her body to Claudio, which was wrong. But, once the sin was committed, she repented and was entirely willing to endure shame for her sin, still love Claudio (although it was clear that he did not so much return that love), and bear and rear their child in spite of the social rejection and ostracization it would cost her. She has only one speaking part in the play, although she appears twice. Her silence in her first appearance during 1.2 indicates her lack of self-absortion and self-centeredness. Instead of excusing her sin, or complaining about its consquences as Claudio does, she humbly remains silent and endures her shame.

Quite a contrast to Isabella’s constant talking. It could be reasonably argued that Isabella’s sole incentive for imploring Angelo to save Claudio was that her name would not be shamed more through Claudio’s death. And to achieve her goal, she uses as many persuasive  speeches as she could, but she never acted in a way that would cause her any type of discomfort. She even acts very willing to abandon her case with Angelo several times, and seems likely to give up after only a few half-hearted attempts but for Lucio’s prodding. To summarize Isabella: lots of words, fewer actions in accordance with those words, and pretended piety.

But Juliet is quite different. She uses few words (that we hear), proves those words with her actions, makes no pretense of empty religion but humbly professes her sin and repentence. She also mentions that she takes “the shame with joy,” which could possibly refer to the joy of giving life to another. This would create one other essential difference between herself and Isabella: Isabella has no joy because she is consumed with herself while Juliet has joy because she is able to live not only for herself but others, after she learned the danger of being self-consumed.

This comparison of Juliet and Isabella seems similar to that given in Luke 18: 9-14 between the tax collector and the Pharisee.  In this parable, Jesus said that the Pharisee thanked God loudly for his holiness and bragged about how much better he was than the “sinner.” But the sinner humbly acknowledged his sin an his own unworthiness of God’s grace. The ironic thins about this parable, which Jesus is teaching, is that both men were sinners, but the tax collector was more pleasing to God because of his recognition of his own sinfulness and dependence on God while  the Pharisee simply rejoiced in his own perceived righteousness, leaving God completely out of the picture.

Perhaps the verse given at the end of the parable in Luke 18 best summarizes the characters of Juliet and Isabella:

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Isabella: Dedicated to God or Self?

Posted in Measure for Measure with tags , , on March 1, 2009 by Saera

Measure for Measure is another very “uncomfortable” Shakespeare comedy. Almost all of the characters are selfish, scheming technicians of…well, something. Among those is the woman Isabella, Claudio’s sister, a beautiful woman who lives in a convent.  After being persuaded by Lucio, one of Claudio’s friends, to make an attempt to save Claudio’s life (he is sentenced to die for having illicit sexual relations with a woman named Juliet), Isabella pleads with Angelo, the ruler of Vienna, to spare her brother’s life. However, Angelo himself becomes incredibly lustful and tells Isabella that the only way Claudio might be saved, is for her to give herself completely to Angelo’s lust. 

Isabella is perhaps the second most central character of Measure for Measure. She is a fascinating character to study, although she is certainly a disappointing one. Her definitive quality seems to be her incredible hypocrisy. She has convictions, this is good. And her refusal to comply with satisfying Angelo’s depraved lust with her own body is honorable. But her reasons, her real motives, for doing the seemingly “right” thing are wrong.

She, living as a self-proclaimed woman of God as a nun in a convent (although she had not yet taken the vows), should have been most concerned with following God and His rules. She certainly exhibits knowledge of those rules by making several allusions to the Bible in her pleadings with Angelo. But, as the play goes on, she is shown to have motives that are fundamentally opposed to Christ’s teachings about life and living as His follower.

Yes, fornication is forbidden by God, but so is self-centeredness. Isabella should notagree to Angelo’s ridiculous ultimatum for her virginity because it would dishonor Christ (1 Cor. 6:18-20). But the reason she offers is not that at all. She tells Angelo in 3.1, lines 183-186, that she would have her brother die twenty deaths before she would ever consider “her body to stoop/To such abhorr’d pollution.” Notice she never says who abhors fornication (God, herself, or other people), but from the context of her speech, it becomes clear that she must maintain her honor (not God’s), so it would seem to follow that she is referring to society’s aberration of fornication. This would indicate pride on her part; instead of being concerned that her sin would affect God, she is merely concerned with how it would affect her reputation among humans.

Later, in Claudio’s prison cell, she tells him of Angelo’s demand in a very calculating, egocentric, manipulative manner. Far from exhibiting concern for Claudio’s life or any kind of selfless intent, Isabella first frames Angelo’s demand with informing Claudio that there is a way he might be saved, but it is one that would hurt her. She then expresses her fear of confiding the way he might be saved as being that she is afraid he’ll wish her to comply with Angelo.

This does not at all seem like love, either for God or Claudio. Instead of wanting to help Claudio, at any cost to herself, she only wishes to help him if it will not cost her too dearly. In response to Claudio’s declaration that “death is a fearful thing,” she says “And shamed life a hateful,” clearly expressing her unwillingness to suffer any reproach to herself. This prideful unwillingness to suffer, to be scorned in any way, is the primary reason she refuses Angelo’s demand. And this pride is very opposite to the type of attitude  Christ showed by humbly giving His life as a ransom for others’. He was shamed, wrongfully treated, and injustly punished, but He endured all out of His love for God and people. According to Christ, the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and the second greatest was to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt.22:37-39). Can anyone be closer to being a neighbor than a brother is?

Isabella is a holy hypocrite, a white-washed tomb. She is more concerned with her outward appearance of virtue than her true inward condition, and seems to care more about herself and what other people will think of her than what God will. Ths is all the more heinous because she claims to be God’s follower, and basically uses her pretense of piety as an excuse for her selfishness. She has shown in the beginning of the play that she is willing to renounce life in the world and go live in an isolated convent. But which is more pleasing to God? Having her live a life of seclusion, having no impact on those who need Him, and stay “unshamed” and prideful, or selflessly imitate his example and show love to those, like Claudio, who are sinners and need His love and mercy?

One of the passages spoken by Isabella that demonstrate her knowlegde of what is right, thereby completely destroying any excuses on her part for her failure to apply that knowledge to her actions, is in 2.2 lines 78-84.

 “Why, all the souls that were forfeit once;

And He that might the vantage best have took,

Found out the remedy. How would you be,

 If He, which is the top of judgement, should

But judge you as you are? O! think on that,

And mercy then will breathe within your lips,

Like man new made.”

She asked the Duke to follow Christ’s example and judge with mercy, as he would wish to be judged, but she later judges with no mercy and acts in opposition to Christ’s example of self-sacrifice and love.

Then, Isabella takes he hypocrisy one strp farther and immediately agrees to the disguised Duke’s proposal to remedy the situation at no cost to herself. She agrees to his reasoning that it would not be fornication if Angelo and Mariana have sex because they were engaged at one time (never mind the fact that it is no longer a mutially binding agreement because Angelo ceased loving Mariana months ago), despite the fact that she originally agreed with Angelo that Claudio and Juliet had sinned by having sex outside of marriage – which is the exact same as what Angelo and Mariana would be doing with her sanction. But in fact, Claudio and Juliet had more of a marriage agreement for they both had pledged their love to each other but were waiting for the financial matters to be worked out to their friends’ and relations’ approval before they could declare their marriage when they committed the sin.  Angelo and Mariana however, have no such agreement because it had been broken by Angelo.

Isabella, like Angelo, fails to live by the standards she expects others to follow. And she, though previously exclaiming that for a woman to lie with a man who was not her husband would be shameful, and that a shameful life is a hateful thing (with the implication that is is worse than death), and completely below her, she has no inhibitions at all in causing another woman to committ the sin that would sentence bring that woman shame.

So not only is Isabella a hypocrite, she is an unfeeling villain! She is not a worshipper of God (unless it is to her advantage), she is a worshipper of herself. Far from living up to her name’s meaning of “Dedicated to God,” Isabella lives soley for herself and her desires. She is “Isabella” in name only!