The law made flesh: St. Paul's Corinth and Shakespeare's Vienna.
In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal exults in his success at carousing with the men of Eastcheap; he brags to Poins that they "tell me flatly I am no proud jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy" (2.4.11-12). (1) Hal is delighted he can "drink with any tinker in his own language," giving Poins an account of the vocabulary he has acquired. Among the curious terms he has collected, "Corinthian" stands out. In context it implies only an unpretentious bonhomie, but the Oxford English Dictionary notes an obsolete meaning current from 1575 into the late nineteenth century: "A wealthy man; a profligate idler; a gay, licentious man; also, a shameless or 'brazen-faced' fellow." The ancient city of Corinth might have been familiar to the denizens of Eastcheap from the two letters Saint Paul wrote to the church there, letters that are unique for the clear picture they offer of the problem of distinguishing between liberty and license in an apostolic community. Those with more formal education would also know Corinth's reputation for luxury and sexual excess and its status as an important trade center and the site of the temple of Aphrodite. This is the impression of the city Calvin presents in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, which was published in an English translation in 1577. He observes that "at Corinth those vices raigned with the which Citties of Mart are woonte to be replenished, as with Luxurie, pryde, vanitie, nicenes, covetousness insatiable, and ambition: they had also so invaded the Church itselfe, that discipline was almost out of place" (*4r). Several problems that troubled apostolic Corinth are remarkably similar to those plaguing the Vienna of Measure for Measure; unrestrained sexual license most obviously, but also the ambiguities of marriage contracts and questions about the scope of personal liberty disturb both cities.
Numerous critics have identified biblical references in the play and demonstrated its clear concern with the interpretation of the Bible. (2) Its most important biblical allusion is its title, which refers simultaneously to the Sermon on the Mount's instruction to judge others mercifully and to the lex talionis of Mosaic Law. (3) Critics have also demonstrated the particular link between Paul's letter to the Romans and Measure for Measure, identifying one of the letter's key themes in Isabella's argument for mercy despite Claudio's transgression of the law, and tracing the Duke's conflation of royal and divine power back to Paul's insistence that Christians are still subject to secular authority as another "minister of God" (Rom. 13:4). (4) I want to suggest that Paul's letters to the church in Corinth, and particularly 1 Corinthians, exercised an influence on the play as well, since Paul's comments about the community there offer the most fully realized portrait of a church in crisis in his letters. First Corinthians focuses on the practical question of social discipline and addresses a community that has lost its bearings with regard to the law. Likewise, Vienna is vexed by a general lawlessness, but the solution lies not in imposing harsh laws, but in granting unwarranted mercy to malefactors. Measure for Measure opposes a theory of the law that emphasizes its transcendent, inhuman impartiality, and presents instead an understanding of the law that accommodates the frailty of human flesh. The Duke resolves the city's disorder through compromises, in a manner consistent with the concessions Paul made in dealing with conflicting factions in Corinth and elsewhere. Shakespeare's play is therefore antipuritan, but Pauline, underscoring a vision of society that is inclusive but still only imperfectly reformed.
In suggesting a link between Measure for Measure and 1 Corinthians, this essay participates in a renewed interest in St. Paul on a number of fronts beyond the field of New Testament scholarship. A wave of interest in Paul among continental philosophers has recently transformed him into the apostle to the postmodern age. Alain Badiou, in particular, has turned to Paul's universalism as a way around the deadening effects of identity politics, relativism, and global capitalism. (5) From the perspective of Talmudic studies, Daniel Boyarin has also reexamined Paul's effort to balance the claims of ethnic particularity and universalism in the context of Pharisaic Judaism. Although St. Paul's influence has long been of interest to scholars of early modern literature, these new readings are complemented by new scholarship that explores Paul's contribution to discourses of race, subjectivity, and community formation in the English Renaissance. Julia Reinhard Lupton, for example, argues that Paul becomes a model for subsequent formations of citizenship through his dialectic between ethnic particularity and a new community based on spirit. Similarly Gregory Kneidel has traced the universalist strain in Paul's thought that appears repeatedly in seventeenth-century literature. (6) Paul's universalism also plays a role in Jeffrey Knapp's exploration of the religious attitudes of Shakespeare and his colleagues; he suggests that many early modern playwrights were far from secular, and sought to convert audiences by accommodating human foibles, as Paul models in 1 Cor. 9:22: "To the weake I become as weake, that I may winne the weake; I am made all things to all men, that I might by all meanes save some" (33-36). Likewise, in examining the relationship between Corinth and Vienna, I submit that Shakespeare's play is indebted to Paul's universalism; rather than purge the community of transgressors, the Duke indefinitely suspends the law in favor of inclusivity, ensuring the deferral of reform.
1. Private Freedoms and Public Scandals in Corinth and Vienna
Vienna's misrule is evident in virtually every scene of the play. Beyond the Duke's confession that his own laxity as a ruler has inspired a pervasive lawlessness, various other details confirm his diagnosis. The recurrent appointment of the incompetent Elbow as constable reveals that the citizens are apathetic and cynical, and would rather be left to their own private affairs than concern themselves with public service. The child Lucio fathers with Kate Keepdown and abandons to be raised by Mistress Overdone shows how easily he can evade his responsibilities. Claudio and Juliet's illegitimate pregnancy, while a common occurrence in early modern England (Hayne 5-6), is treated as a manifestation of license. Even Barnardine's ludicrous refusal to be executed, after which he retires to his cell to sleep off a hangover, suggests the pervasive disorder. The city's outrageous freedom parallels the license of first-century Corinth, a rich and powerful mercantile city notorious for its luxury and sex trade. When Paul writes to the Christian community there, he addresses numerous social problems that concern the limits of personal freedom from community norms. And alongside matters like the permissibility of meat that has been sacrificed to pagan idols and disputes over the nature of Christ's resurrection, sexual license is an especially important problem.
Corinth and Vienna are both rife with sexual corruption. It would seem that some members of the church in Corinth had even taken a liberal attitude toward prostitution, since Paul warns them against this: "Knowe ye not, that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid" (1 Cor. 6:15). The laxity he castigates in Corinth is everywhere on display in Vienna, where prostitution seems to be one of the city's primary industries. And yet while Paul inveighs against sexual vice, he does not adopt a position of absolute asceticism. His most detailed advice about marriage appears in his first letter to the Corinthians, where despite the fact that marriage might seem inadvisable given the apocalyptic expectations of first-century Christians, he refuses to declare marriage unlawful, presenting it as a concession to human weakness, claiming that "it is better to marrie then to burne" (1 Cor. 7:9). Instead of presenting marriage in terms of erotic or romantic fulfillment, Paul presents it instead as a means of tempering desire. The several marriages that the Duke ordains for his subjects are consistent with Paul's use of marriage as a means for preventing sexual license; the vices of Lucio, Angelo, and Claudio are squelched. In arranging these marriages, the Duke seems less concerned about gratifying the wishes of his subjects than channeling ungoverned sexuality into social order.
Another striking similarity between Corinth and Vienna is the problem of virgins frustrated on the path to marriage, a situation that seems to be reflected in the imperfect union of Angelo and Mariana, who have been engaged and are not yet married. Angelo has renounced her unfairly, on an alleged suspicion of infidelity that no one seems to believe. Their failed engagement--which traps Mariana in disgrace--resembles stalled engagements in Corinth insofar as she is thwarted in her desires. Evidently the question of what to do about virgins was great enough that Paul offered advice, and his recommendation is a compromise between the aspiration to celibacy and the demands of the body. While expressing the belief that deferring marriage forever might be better, he also seems to urge consideration for the desires of the woman: "if any man thinke that it is uncomely for his virgine, if she passe the floure of her age, and need so require, let him doe what he will, he sinneth not: let them be married" (1 Cor. 7:36). The meaning of the Greek phrase that the Geneva Bible translates as "pass the flower of her age" is ambiguous, yet regardless of the precise meaning that Paul intended, the early modern translation of the passage seems to envision the betrothed woman as a potential spinster, a figure that corresponds to the lonely, frustrated Mariana, whose rights in the marriage contract have been violated by Angelo. (7) Notes to the various editions of the Geneva Bible assume the norms of early modern patriarchy, and take Paul's instructions to be intended for the father as a warning against destructively thwarting the needs of his children by imposing celibacy on them. (8) This is not the situation of Mariana, who appears to be confined and socially isolated, but independent. Nevertheless, the frustrated desire for marriage is a problem Paul directly addresses, and it seems to be paralleled in the harm done to Mariana as she languishes on the margins of the play.
Along with the regulation and proper challenging of sexual desire, the Corinthian church also wrestled with the permissibility of certain foods, a problem that Shakespeare's play may allude to as well. Factions appeared in Corinth over participation in the city's pagan festivals; was meat sacrificed to the gods permitted or forbidden for Christians? Although some, confident in their belief in only one God, felt justified in exercising their freedom to attend pagan festivals, more scrupulous members of the community feared that doing so implied the veneration of an idol. This dispute about the potential scandal of eating with pagans is perhaps hinted at in the curious visit Elbow's wife pays to Mistress Overdone's unsavory tavern. What happened is not entirely clear. All we are allowed to know before the story is derailed is that she "came in great with child and longing ... for stewed prunes" (2.1.88-89). Given the house's reputation, her presence there signals that the righteous and the impure live side-by-side in Vienna and may not be so easily distinguished. Stewed prunes are moreover a well-known signifier of bawdy houses, perhaps because they were believed to be an aphrodisiac (Panek). The desire of Elbow's wife for stewed prunes is perhaps innocent, but her "longing" has an almost erotic intensity, and pregnancy underscores her body's sexuality. Although there is nothing unlawful about stewed prunes, for the wife of a puritanical constable to eat them in a house of prostitution appears scandalous.
The problems regarding marriage, sexuality, and food that afflicted Corinth seem to have derived in part from uncertainty about whether the moral law was still in effect in the wake of Paul's preaching. Ambiguity about the status of the law seems to have been a persistent issue in many communities Paul evangelized, provoking the suspicion that he offered an antinomian gospel. For instance, according to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's missionary activities in Corinth led to a schism in the Jewish community there. When he was brought before the proconsul, his opponents declared, "This fellow perswadeth men to worship God otherwise then the Lawe appointeth" (18.13). Although Paul particularly deemphasized the ritual observances that demarcated Israel and created a barrier for Gentile converts--circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance--he also went further, implying that the law in general was rendered moot and replaced with a new spiritual covenant of grace. The practical exercise of this new freedom evidently produced disagreements about how far it should extend. In 1 Corinthians, Paul quotes the slogans of radical antinomians who have sprung up in the community: "A11 things are lawfull unto me" and "Meats are ordeined for the bellie, and the bellie for the meates" (6.12, 13). This relaxed attitude, which assumes that, since the law has been annulled, desire is the only guide to action, took root in Corinth. Similarly, the disorder of Shakespeare's Vienna is the consequence of a more general doubt about the force of the laws. Vienna has laws, but the Duke's refusal to enforce them, as he admits to Friar Thomas, has inspired the people to act as if there is no law, so that the city's
decrees, Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead; And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose; The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart Goes all decorum. (1.3.27-31)
A general disorder has overtaken the city, as the difference between liberty and license has dissolved. Claudio's acknowledgement that his imprisonment is the result of "too much liberty" highlights the uncertain distinction between legitimate freedom and an unwholesome excess of freedom (1.2.117). And his defense of his conduct underscores the ambiguity regarding the actual morality of his sexual relationship with Juliet. He tells Lucio that "upon a true contract / I got possession of Julietta's bed," and he insists "she is fast my wife" and that all they lack is "the denunciation ... Of outward order" even though they are not officially married (1.2.134-38). The indefinite status of their relationship is consistent with similarly ambiguous marriages in early modern England, as Victoria Hayne's research has shown. But the young couple's excessive liberty also reflects the general confusion about whether the laws are in effect at all, since Vienna seems to be functionally lawless when the Duke appoints Angelo to rule in his stead.
The status of the law is also uncertain in Promos and Cassandra, the clearest indisputable source for Measure for Measure, but in comparison Shakespeare intensifies the focus on key issues in 1 Corinthians, particularly the bounds of personal liberty and the consequences of allowing the law to go unenforced. Julio, the setting of Promos and Cassandra, is also a corrupt city where prostitution is a prominent industry; however, Shakespeare underscores the contrast between libertines and the devout in a manner Whetstone does not. Isabella, unlike Cassandra, is a member of a religious order, and Vienna includes godly citizens like Elbow and his wife, not to mention the puritanical Angelo. As in Measure for Measure, the fatal law against fornication in Promos and Cassandra was "little regarded, untill the time of Lord Promos auctority," according to the argument (A4r). But in Promos and Cassandra the lawlessness of Julio seems to be caused mainly by Promos and his henchmen, who shield their favorites from prosecution while falsely accusing and intimidating the innocent. Promos' abuses of his office are numerous, which gives the impression that the city's main problem is that it is being terrorized by a corrupt judicial system, not by the license of the citizens. In short, Measure for Measure offers a sharper picture of a city in which much of the population has decided to disregard the laws, and in this respect it resembles St. Paul's Corinth more than Julio does. Furthermore, Measure for Measure also develops the theme of marriage, an important issue in Corinth, more clearly than Promos and Cassandra, by guiding even more characters into the institution. At the close of Promos and Cassandra, the title characters are married, along with the couple who originally ran afoul of the law against fornication. In Measure for Measure, the problem of incomplete marriages is a central concern, and in the conclusion the wayward Lucio and arguably even Isabella are driven into marriage. Vienna's problems seem more clearly to derive from the dissolute intemperance of its people, and marriage is more emphatically presented as a remedy for the city's lawlessness, implying a link to 1 Corinthians.
That Corinth would have been known to early modern readers as a dissipated city is confirmed by references to it in Calvin's enormously influential writings. When Calvin refers specifically to Corinth, it is to consider the lessons of its crisis for the question of community discipline. He considers the Corinthians much worse than the Galatians, "as they abounded in mo [re] and those nothing lighter sins" (Instit. 4.1.27; 281v). And he focuses particularly on the case of a man who had begun an incestuous relationship with his mother-in-law, which was evidently tolerated in the community but sharply criticized by Paul (Instit. 4.1.15; 278v). While there is no relationship like this one in Measure for Measure, the problem of scandalous license that is widely accepted, eroding the moral standards of the community, is omnipresent in Vienna.
Likewise, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Calvin represents Corinth as a site of misrule, where the law is no longer in effect. He suggests that the Christians of Corinth "retayned much of their wonted libertie, and retayned againe the maners of their citie: but when synnes runne at randon without punishment, custome is taken for a lawe: then vayne colours are sought to excuse the same: as did these, who got them under the shadowe of Christian libertie, that they might make all things almost lawfull unto them" (I4r). Calvin attributes the corrupt morality of Corinth to its luxury as a mercantile city. Aside from the sex trade, Shakespeare does not emphasize the commercial life of Vienna, and in fact, commercial luxury is not an especially prominent feature of Paul's letter, implicit only in his obscure allusions to distinctions in social rank among the Corinthians. The unregulated sexual license there is extremely clear, however. Naturally, Calvin expresses his hatred of fornication among the godly. Indeed, in his comment on 1 Cor. 6:18--"Flee fornication, every sinne that a man doeth, is without the body: but hee that committeth fornication, sinneth against his owne bodie"--he seems pressed to explain how fornication is unique among sins, such as slander and murder, which are also defiling, and concludes that "fornication leaveth such filthines behynde it, as cleaveth fast to the body, and as other synnes do not" (I5v). Calvin's particular hostility to sexual license seems to express an important element of the puritan impulse, which is expressed as well in Angelo's campaign against "uncleanness." As several critics have observed, Measure for Measure's severe law against fornication was not an impossible notion in 1604, since the death penalty for adultery had been proposed in Parliament in 1584 and 1604 (Shuger 30). (9)
Calvin also focuses much attention on marriage in his commentary on the crisis in Corinth. Although the Duke's relative tolerance is at odds with Calvin's severity, he seems to follow Calvin's endorsement of marriage for almost everyone. Predictably, Calvin is especially interested in challenging the view that Paul privileges celibacy over marriage. He stresses that the ability to remain celibate is a gift given to very few, and he assumes that unruly sexual desire is unavoidable for most people. The proper way to combat temptations, he counsels, is to "set that remedy agaynst them, whiche the Lorde hath geven us for our defence. Therefore they doo rashly whiche renounce Matrimonie: as though they had made a league with God concernyng their perpetual strength" (K3r). Calvin's views seem to suggest that marriage should be the solution for almost everyone, as it is in the Duke's Vienna, where fornicators such as Claudio, Lucio, and Angelo are made into honest citizens through marriage, and even the Duke, who initially professes to be invulnerable to desire, proposes marriage to Isabella. (10) Of course, the implication that marriage is a necessary evil creates uncertainty about how happy this ending is for most of the couples; only one couple is certainly glad to be married. Nevertheless, the Duke's approach to marriage as a remedy for ungoverned sexual desire underscores the play's Pauline heritage, and reflects the pragmatic view of marriage Paul offers to the Corinthians.
2. The Law v. the Flesh
Vienna's seamy disorder and the Duke's pragmatic solution are indebted to the discourse of marriage as it appears in Paul's advice to the Corinthians. Furthermore, the play's concern with the boundaries of individual freedom and the execution of the law also points to an engagement with Paul's thought. In this respect, Measure for Measure invokes a Pauline discourse of the arbitrary and inhuman law, the law that Paul describes as "the ministration of death written with letters and ingraven in stones," the letter that kills in contrast to the life-giving spirit (2 Cor. 3:6-7). The status of the law in Paul's theology and in the thought of early modern reformers is ambiguous, and created a complicated legacy for subsequent generations. Paul's numerous references to "the law" are notoriously uncertain, and often could be taken to refer either to natural law or to Mosaic law. Moreover, there was no clear consensus in the Reformation about the significance of Mosaic law for Christians. Ritual observances like circumcision, dietary laws, and keeping the Sabbath were clearly not binding for Christians, and were perhaps even sinful, insofar as they could express a lack of faith in the gospel. (11) But Paul also suggested that at least parts of the law were still binding insofar as they expressed a law inscribed not exclusively on stone tablets, but also in nature; for instance, when Gentiles naturally followed principles enshrined in Mosaic law, it showed "the effect of the Lawe written in their hearts" (Rom. 2:15).
Protestant viewpoints regarding moral and judicial laws therefore were varied. In his survey of the rise of Protestant legalism in the first generations of the Reformation, P.D.L. Avis observes that although Luther tended to make a sweeping distinction between the law and the gospel, which implied that no part of Mosaic law applied to Christians, subsequent reformers, such as Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, and Bullinger, generally took the view that moral laws of the old covenant were binding on Christians insofar as they reflected natural laws incumbent on all people (152-65). In England, some who insisted on an even more thorough reformation of church and society took a sharper turn toward legalism. Some dissenters, such as Thomas Cartwright, went so far as to argue that even the penalties of Mosaic judicial laws should still be enforced, such that the biblical demand of "an eye for an eye" should still be the law among Christians, and that idolatry, blasphemy, and grave sexual offenses should be punished by death (Avis 167-68).
Angelo, Escalus, and the Duke conceive of the law in various ways, and the differences among them lead to a theme that has roots in classical republicanism as well as the letters of St. Paul: the idea that the immutable law must transcend the mutable world of human affairs. Angelo clearly takes this view, but he extends it by attempting even to embody the law himself, as if he could renounce his fleshliness through austere self-control. Lucio gossips that Angelo was conceived through some means other than sex: "Some report, a sea-maid spawned him. Some, that he was begot between two stockfishes. But it is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true." (3.2.104-07). According to Lucio, Angelo is not a flesh-and-blood man, but a "motion"--that is, a puppet, a simulacrum of a man. Earlier, Lucio describes him as
a man whose blood Is very snow-broth; one who never feels The wanton stings and motions of the sense; But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge With profits of the mind, study and fast. (1.4.57-61)
Even the Duke agrees with Lucio's assessment, saying Angelo "Stands at a guard with Envy; scarce confesses / That his blood flows; or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone" (1.3.51-53). The Duke describes him as "precise" a word denoting puritanism (1.3.50). (12)
Of course, all of these reports of his cold-blooded self-control are ironically overturned by the outrageous assertion of his desire for Isabella. But it is interesting to observe as well how the recurrent idea that Angelo's body is not normal, that it lacks heat, blood, and desire--all of which are essentially the same thing according to the physiological theory of the humors--corresponds to the abstract, disembodied legal theory he pronounces, which minimizes the significance of the individual particularity of human beings, whether as judges executing the law or as subjects before it. Always he insists on the law as an abstract form that must disregard the particularity of individuals in order to remain just. When Escalus asks him to put himself in Claudio's place and consider if he could ever have offended as Claudio has done, Angelo declares this possibility irrelevant: the only thing that matters is what has been done and the law's sentence on the act. Likewise, he tells Isabella, "It is the law, not I, condemn your brother; / Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son, / It should be thus with him" (2.2.80-82). He presents himself as the mere executor of the abstract law, and he states that flesh-and-blood relationships cannot change its outcome, which will proceed with perfect regularity. Lucio's hostile characterization of Angelo as a puppet without desires seems an appropriate description of his legal theory, too; ostensibly putting his humanity aside, Angelo styles himself the neutral servant of the abstract law.
In contrast to this austere theory of the law, his fellow magistrate, Escalus, has a messier and more humane approach to justice. Given Angelo's insistence on the abstract law's disregard for contingent factors like kinship, it is interesting that Escalus brings up Claudio's fleshly parentage as a mitigating factor: "Alas, this gentleman, / Whom I would save, had a most noble father" (2.1.6-7). Perhaps this is an expression of Escalus's class prejudice, but given Angelo's claim in the next scene that he would not spare Claudio even if he were his own son, it is more significant as a contrast with Angelo's understanding of the law. Escalus is less interested in carrying out the exact letter of the law than in using the law to achieve desirable effects. Rather than carrying out the full sentence, he suggests, "Let us be keen, and rather cut a little, / Than fall, and bruise to death" (2.1.5-6). Escalus's approach to the law takes the flesh into account, unlike Angelo's rigor, which insists that human frailty must be scourged by the law.
Angelo's severe interpretation of the law is exactly faithful to the law, and the result is death, as Isabella observes when she pleads for Claudio's life. Moreover, through Angelo's transformation from righteous judge to lustful hypocrite, the play stages Paul's account of the law as actually inspiring the rebellious desires it condemns. Paul claims, "Nay, I knew not sinne, but by the Law: for I had not knowen lust, except the Law had said, Thou shalt not lust. But sinne tooke an occasion by the commaundement, and wrought in mee all maner of concupiscence: for without the Lawe sinne is dead" (Rom. 7:7-8). As the law strangely causes its own transgression, it generates a dramatic split in the will: Paul laments, "For I doe not the good thing, which I would, but the evill, which I would not, that doe I" (Rom. 7:19). The will turned against itself is played out as a conflict between the spiritual law and the rebellious flesh, which is governed by an entirely different law: "For I delite in the Law of God, concerning the inner man: But I see another Lawe in my members, rebelling against the Law of my minde, and leading me captive unto the Law of sinne, which is in my members" (Rom. 7:22-23). Naturally, it is Angelo, the representative of the impartial, mortal law, who dramatizes this inward division as he is impelled to violate his own austere principles in the service of his lust. His sudden discovery of transgressive desire at the very moment that he is executing the law marks him as the possessor of a fraught, inwardly divided Pauline subjectivity. (13)
Although Angelo's characterization as a severe magistrate who "puts transgression to't," in Lucio's words (3.2.91-92) seems to derive from Paul's account of the killing letter of the law, the representation of Angelo's legalism as an inhuman castigation of frail human flesh is indebted not only to Paul, but also to the political tradition of classical republicanism. Livy's Ab urbe condita, one of classical republicanisms exemplary texts, demonstrates an understanding of the law that parallels Angelo's. In Livy, the laws of the republic are abstract and applied to all people without partiality. A salient episode from his history of Rome demonstrates this: Almost immediately after Lucius Junius Brutus led the overthrow of the Tarquins and established the republic, a conspiracy among a faction of young aristocrats planned to restore the monarchy. This group of young men included even Brutus's own sons. These aristocrats, "accustomed to associate with the younger members of the royal family, ... had been able to give a freer rein to their appetites and to live the dissolute and irresponsible life of the court" (92). They experienced the new regime as a limitation of their freedom:
A king, they argued, was, after all, a human being, and there was a chance of getting from him what one wanted, rightly or wrongly; under a monarchy there was room for influence and favor; a king could be angry, and forgive; he knew the difference between an enemy and a friend. Law, on the other hand, was impersonal and inexorable. Law had no ears. (92)
This depiction of the law as an abstract, disembodied force that acts without favor for kinship or class--a classic example of the republican ideal of law as an impartial institution--parallels the description of Angelo as a bloodless, inhuman judge. The sensual aristocrats wished to be governed not by a legal code but by a human being with fleshly whims and frailties like their own. Like the corrupt inhabitants of Angelo's Vienna, they found the letter of the law too hard to be followed: According to Livy, the aristocratic conspirators objected that "Human nature not being perfect, to suppose that a man could live in pure innocence under the law was, to put it mildly, risky" (92). And in a chilling demonstration of the law's absolute impartiality, Brutus himself executed the death penalty even on his own sons: the public office of consul outweighs the private, fleshly claims of fatherhood.
3. The Duke's Craft against Vice
Despite the differences between the cultures where they appeared, Paul's and Livy's depictions of the law converge in their account of its impartial, severe, and inhuman judgment on frail human beings. For both, human imperfection makes it impossible to follow the law blamelessly. When Angelo claims that he could not pardon Claudio even if he were his own son, he is adopting the role of Brutus castigating his own flesh and blood just as much as he is impersonating the mortal law in Paul's letters. In contrast to Angelo, the Duke operates more like the king that Livy's young aristocrats wish for. Evidently, for him, deviating from the letter of the law may at times serve the aims of justice better. He accommodates the law to circumstances, a point ludicrously exemplified by his extemporaneous invention of the bed trick to solve multiple problems at once. In forestalling punishment in favor of mercy, the Duke is not a type of Christ; on the contrary, his humanity is underscored in several ways throughout the play. (14) He initially professes to be invulnerable to love, but his proposal to Isabella at the end shows this is not true. He is also plainly so eager for the affection and approval of his subjects that he is unwilling to carry out harsh sentences. He fails to anticipate Angelo's deceit in attempting to behead Claudio even after Isabella has supposedly slept with him in exchange for her brother's life. Despite Angelo's mortified comparison of the Duke to an all-seeing "power divine" (5.1.367), the Duke is an imperfect mortal, as fleshly as his subjects.
It is true that some of the signs of the Duke's humanity can be construed as indicators that he is actually a cynical ruler who pardons vices in others because he does not wish to be held accountable himself. This is the basis of Lucio's slander, who refers to him as "the old fantastical duke of dark corners" (4.3.156). But he interprets the Duke's charity as licentiousness. He claims that before the Duke "would have hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand," but he ascribes this to the Duke's sympathy with the dissolute man: "he had some feeling of the sport; he knew the service; and that instructed him to mercy" (3.2.115-17). Lucio interprets the Duke's love for his citizens as selfish eros, so that his kindness to beggars is interpreted as a lustful desire to "mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic" (3.2.176-77). Therefore, the Duke is represented as scandalously misusing his freedom in private: he "would eat mutton on Fridays," an insinuation that combines both sexual and dietary license (3.2.175-76). In other words, Lucio, as a typical Viennese citizen, reads the Duke's Christian mercy in a cynical and fleshly way.
The Duke is not exactly lax, however; in conversation with Pompey, he criticizes the sex trade and counsels him to adopt another way of life. But rather than scourging offenders, he attempts to correct abuses, even if he is unable to purify Vienna completely. This reflects the play's antipuritan perspective on the correct response to vice; it also reveals its Pauline inheritance. In Paul's tumultuous relationship to the community in Corinth, he emphasizes reconciliation over punishment. Although he urges ostracism in the specific case of the incestuous adulterer, he generally counsels repentance. Whether this approach was effective is impossible to say; the two letters to the Corinthians testify to disorder within the community and skepticism regarding Paul's leadership, but do not reveal how the crises were resolved. In comparison, the Duke's effort to reconcile offenders to a virtuous life or, if necessary, to coerce them into it, seems effective. Nevertheless, even after he has carried out his elaborate scheme, which began with the ostensible goal of chastening the city, the incompleteness of their reformation is evident.
The fact that Vienna's reform is incomplete has frustrated countless readers and playgoers. While the Duke's manipulation of Isabella's feelings is probably the most offensive thing that can be laid to his charge, his willingness to pardon Angelo's attempted crimes and to pardon Barnardine, who has confessed to murder without any sign of contrition, is potentially troubling. Moreover, the play calls our attention to the ways in which the unregenerate elements in Viennese society elude reform. The impudent question that Pompey poses to Escalus--"Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?" (2.1.227-28)--insinuates that the sexual desires of unruly flesh cannot be extirpated. The failure of the Duke's reform and the hopelessness of actually expunging vice from the city reveal a further debt to Paul's theology. On one hand, Paul declares to the Corinthian community that Christ's followers inhabit a new order of existence: "if any man bee in Christ, let him be a new creature. Olde things are passed away: beholde, all things are become newe" (2 Cor. 5:17). And yet on the other hand this promised liberation has yet to be achieved. Employing the figure of a tabernacle for the temporary habitation of flesh, he claims that "wee know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle bee destroyed, wee have a building given of God, that is, an house not made with hands, but eternall in the heavens" (2 Cor. 5:1). But this liberation has not yet come to pass: "wee that are in this tabernacle, sigh and are burdened" waiting for the deliverance from this life to the greater life to come (2 Cor. 5:4). The reform is deferred, like the redemption of the world in general. The uncertain status of Vienna's reform expresses this temporal paradox.
Despite the Duke's spectacular performance of forgiveness and his effort to reestablish his city as an inclusive, virtuous society, the city's problems obviously remain. In creating Measure for Measure's Vienna, Shakespeare draws on discourses of license and law that derive at least in part from Paul's letters. Although the play does not invoke all of the concerns that vexed Corinth, its particular focus on unrestrained sexuality and the remedy of marriage leads back to 1 Corinthians and reflects that troubled community. The play presents an anti-puritanical social vision that renounces the possibility of purging society of the flesh and its corruption. The play's conclusion underscores the deferral of reform, despite its numerous marriages. The Duke may have justified the city with respect to the law, but he has been unable to sanctify it.
Saginaw Valley State University
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(1) Quotations from both Henry IV, Part 1 and Measure for Measure refer to the second Arden edition.
(2) Noble 221-28 and Shaheen 245-63 identify multiple biblical allusions in the play. Barnaby and Wry link the play's date of 1604 to the inauguration of the royal project of an authorized version of the Bible at the Hampton Court Conference; in their view, the play complicates the Duke's confident deployment of religion during his incognito adventures in Vienna, subtly raising doubts about the exploitation of religion for political ends. Fulton contends the play's ironic references to the Bible challenge the Protestant fundamentalism of Jacobean England. Like Fulton, I see the play as anti-puritan, as my essay emphasizes the Duke's alternative to enforcing the law to the letter. In another recent examination of the relationship between 1 Corinthians and one of Shakespeare's plays, Randall Martin has argued that the name of the outspoken Paulina in The Winter's Tale implies a subversive allusion to the women enjoined to silence in 1 Cor. 14:34-35. The pervasiveness of religious topics in Shakespeare's plays is revealed by Hunt's Shakespeare's Religious Allusiveness, which focuses on plays that would seem almost entirely secular. Hunt does not see a single religious affiliation in Shakespeare's frequent use of the Bible; instead Shakespeare articulates a wider communion in the theater intended to transcend sectarian divisions. Measure for Measure's vision of a society that includes even wanton but reformed sinners confirms Hunt's argument.
(3) The explicit allusion is to Matt. 7:1-2: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shal be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shal be measured to you againe." On the ironic combination of incompatible senses of the phrase, see Siegel 317-18, Barnaby and Wry 1243-45, Fulton 133-35, and Mowat 33-35. Pope and Magedanz explore the problem of how a Christian ruler was to satisfy the command to "judge not."
(4) On the relationship between Measure for Measure and Romans, see Berman and Fulton. Citations of the New Testament refer to the facsimile of the Geneva Bible of 1602 edited by Sheppard. Although Shakespeare's biblical allusions seem sometimes to reflect the Bishops' Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, or even another version, he seems often to have preferred the Geneva Bible; see Shaheen 39, and Mowat 25.
(5) Badiou, an atheist and a Maoist, seems to be more interested in the form of Paul's commitment to a radical truth that challenges the powers of this world than in the content of Paul's ministry. For an assessment of this approach to Paul that incorporates both sympathetic and critical responses, see the essays collected in Caputo and Alcoff.
(6) Lupton's reading of Paul's negotiation among the identities of Jew, Roman citizen, and follower of Christ appears in the first chapter of Citizen-Saints. See also her reading of Isabella's negotiation of her relationship to the state, on one hand, and her chastity, on the other (127-57). For another account of how the resurgence of interest in Paul is influencing early modern studies, see Lupton, "The Pauline Renaissance" Earlier examples of scholarship examining Paul's presence in early modern literature include Coolidge and Thompson. Coolidge anticipates current trends by exploring the interpretation of Paul among English puritans and its role in puritan concepts of "edification" and ecclesiology, see Kneidel 3-4. Thompson notes the similarity between Shakespeare's Vienna and the church in Corinth (26), but his interpretation of Measure for Measure focuses on parallels between the Duke's characterization and Elizabethan notions about the personality of Paul.
(7) The confusing term translated as "pass the flower of her age" is "hyperakmos"--going beyond the limit--but what is going beyond the limit is debatable. Dale B. Martin argues in a reading informed by historical sociology and ancient Greek medical theory that "hyperakmos" refers actually to the end of puberty in the woman, a phase considered especially vulnerable to unsatisfied sexual desire, since it could lead to hysteria. Paul therefore is urging the man to consider the potential danger for a young bride whose husband refuses to consummate the marriage (219-21). Although this reading may not have been available to Shakespeare, the same idea comes down to the Renaissance in the diagnosis of "greensickness."
(8) The notes to these verses in the Geneva Bibles of 1578 (STC 2123) and 1582 (STC 2133) are identical, and specifically address the father, while those in the Geneva Bible of 1602 (STC 2185) are slightly more inclusive, and address both parents.
(9) Shuger interrogates the political and theological framework underlying Measure for Measure; she finds the specific interest in sexual regulation among English puritans to be a consequence of a view that sees no clear distinction between public and private realms, and therefore is especially concerned about sexuality, which is naturally private and often immune to surveillance (24-38). MacCulloch explains the puritan hostility toward the ecclesiastical courts, which refused to pronounce biblical sentences for sexual offenses and also often persecuted dissenters (108).
(10) Gless interprets the Duke's relationship to Isabella in the context of a genre of "antimonastic satire" that coincides with Calvin's evident skepticism about the vows of celibacy (61-72). He also assumes that Isabella accepts the Duke's proposal, overcoming an unnatural, legalistic obstacle to love (211-13). This reading of the play as a vindication of the Protestant denigration of monastic celibacy could be complicated by the fact that Isabella's answer is not obvious. For an alternative reading of the Duke's conduct, see Beckwith, who argues the play represents the Duke as an abuser of the sacrament of confession in the service of an oppressive authoritarian regime.
(11) Avis cites the opinion of Aquinas that observing the ritual laws of the Old Testament would be a mortal sin, "because this would imply that Christ is yet to appear" (151).
(12) In a recent essay, Hunt examines how "precision" and "imprecision" apply to all of the characters in Measure for Measure; in his reading, only the imprecision of the Duke and Escalus can be truly just in responding to human frailty ("Being Precise" 262).
(13) Berman also finds in Angelo's lustful response to Isabella's plea a dramatization of Rom. 7:13-24 (148). Similarly, Marx claims Angelo's "writhing soliloquy echoes Paul's entrapped humanity" in Romans 7 (86).
(14) For one of the foundational interpretations of this reading, see Knight, who argues that the Duke is a Christ figure and that "[t]he play must be read, not as a picture of normal human affairs, but as a parable, like the parables of Jesus" (96). For readings of the play that, like mine, underscore how reminders of the Duke's humanity undercut a reading of him as a Christ figure, see Groves, Lewis, and Schleiner.
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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