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Assessing the validity of Vivien Thomas's statement on Measure for Measure

Updated on March 10, 2014

Analysis of Vivien Thomas's assessment of Measure for Measure

Assessing the validity of Vivian Thomas's statement on Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ with particular focus on Measure for Measure's ‘fundamental

problems relating to personal and social values within a framework which makes the

audience acutely aware of those problems without providing amelioration through the

provision of adequate answers or a dramatic mode which facilitates a satisfactory

release of emotions’ (The Moral Universe of Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (London:

Routledge, 1987), p.21).

The given description fits the play very well, because Measure for Measure makes no attempt to soften its blows against the social and societal paradoxes in which the play's characters find themselves. As part of this, no definitive conclusions are made upon the moral ramifications of various acts within the play, and we see many conflicting moral decisions are made by the same characters. Furthermore, those that find themselves in these conflicted situations are the characters with the most stringent set of self imposed personal and social values. It is due to these circumstances that emotional response is blunted because there is no readily definable path that is the right one to follow. This stark blending of morals and social clashes makes no endeavour to ease them making the juxtaposition all the more noticeable. During the course of this essay I will illustrate these circumstances and oppositions in order to show that Vivian Thomas's description is a very convincing one.

The character of Isabella demonstrates well this clash of personal and social values, because she exists within a hypocritical framework of her own design. Throughout the course of the play this finds no solution. To some extent it can be said that Isabella's contradictory values stem from the conflicting demands that society has placed on her. In context of the play, Isabella is asked to first of all, remain a virgin. In historical context, for a woman to lose her virginity outside of marriage was a heinous offence, not only often a legal offence that would incur punishment but social approbation as well. The social sanctions placed upon such women were often enough to drive them from their homes and families. Indeed in some cultures it can still mean death. Angelo presents a similar viewpoint to this, and Isabella to some extent holds this same value "It were as good to pardon him that from nature stolen a man already made, as to remit their saucy sweetness"[i] (p130, Act II, Scene 4). By stating that adultery is as much of a crime as murder Angelo not only makes himself a hypocrite but puts Isabella into a position in which there is no obvious "moral" solution. So, she is asked to save her brother's life, as part of her duty as sister as well as being told to remain a virgin. Already there is a conflict of societal demands, as she is placed in a situation in which she cannot achieve one goal without denying the other. This situation demonstrates one of the fundamental problems that is presented to the audience, in that the expectations placed upon women within both the historical and theatrical context often demand actions that are completely contradictory. This is an uncompromising problem that has no obvious moral solution. By presenting this problem, any catharsis that could be achieved by a rounded solution or obviously correct path is removed thus drawing attention to the contradictory demands. Finally, and perhaps unexpectedly, Isabella chooses to preserve her own personal virtue over the life of her brother. Stevenson writes "she is the living antidote to all human charity, to all generous, deeply concerned sympathy and love"[ii] (p199) Whilst this is arguably true in terms of her decision to let her brother die, it is less accurate in terms of the whole play. Isabella saves the life of Angelo at the play's conclusion showing charity, but in a situation regarding her antagonist. This shows how Shakespeare demonstrates the problems between Isabella's personal and social values, as she must decide which doctrine to follow at any given time, leading her into difficult and unpalatable situations. For example, sending her brother to his death by upholding her own virtue, whilst under the principle of charity she saves her attempted rapist.

By extrapolating on the previous point on conflicting demands, more evidence can be found in favour of the above statement. From our first encounter with Isabella, we are made aware that she wishes to become a nun[iii] (p105, Act I, Scene 4) and undergo even greater restraints upon her than the nuns would administer. It is from this articulation that we see how strong her desire to remain a virgin is, it being part of her quest to live a devout and chaste life. The Duke during the course of the play aids her in this quest, by arranging the "bed-trick" so Isabella may remain chaste. The Duke however, at the climax of the play, reverses his previous behaviour in aiding Isabella remain an acceptable candidate for a nunnery and asks for her hand in marriage[iv] (p201, Act V, Scene 1). Whilst marriage proposals are fairly commonplace at the end of Shakespearian comedies, and indeed many comedic plays of this ilk, in the context of this play it does not provide the kind of emotional relief that we might expect it to. Whilst superficially, a woman of minimal social standing marrying a Duke could be seen as a happy ending, throughout the play the character of Isabella shows no romantic interest in the Duke. Nor does the Duke reveal his intentions until the play's final moments; therefore Isabella cannot respond, and neither does the Duke articulate where the desire for Isabella's hand suddenly came from. The structure of the play specifically prevents a satisfactory release of emotions or an ending that fits comedic conventions. Without a satisfying conclusion, the audience is left with an emotional build up that has no release.

This flouting of convention by Shakespeare, is done in order to illustrate the conflicting expectations made of Isabella and her silence demonstrates that there was no correct answer available to her. She cannot simultaneously satisfy all of her obligations, one to the Duke who asks for her to surrender her virginity and the other to a society that demands she remain a virgin. Upon this final conundrum all characters are silent, unable to offer any guidance for the audience. This use of structure enhances the audiences awareness of the issues Isabella is presented with and leaves them to arrive at their own solution to the dilemma or to accept uncomfortably, that there is not one. The social pressures arising from the cultural and religious value system that Isabella exists in, prevent solution by virtue of opposition. She has been asked to save her brother's life, remain a virgin, take holy orders and become a wife and these are all mutually exclusive. By placing her in this context Shakespeare offers no amelioration to Isabella's dilemma because this shows the inherent conflict between strict personal, social and religious values.

Similarly to Isabella, Angelo has an immensely strict set of personal values, in that he is a slavish adherent to the law, to such an extent that he sees no course of action other than what the law dictates, until the arrival of Isabella. He even goes so far as to say that when he acts as the law, he himself commits no action. That the law is carried out is simply a natural and uncontrollable response to a crime of morality in the world[v] (p121, Act 2, Scene 2). This shows the fundamental problem of the personal values held by Angelo, and the social values of the time to which Angelo sticks to rigorously. By disassociating himself from his choices, he essentially shows them to not be choices at all. As with all things, if choice is removed the action becomes meaningless as it was already decided. By this logic we can argue that Angelo does not actually carry out justice. By not taking his actions as his own moral responsibility, he casts off both the action itself and the results showing himself to be hypocritical. He claims to carry out justice, but at the same time he claims that he is merely a vessel for it. With this interpretation, Angelo is shown to be a deeply repressed character as he is not, or claims not to be, responsible for the larger part of his actions. Furthermore the ones he is responsible for are condemned by both society and himself. Angelo recognises that he may be responsible for his desire for Isabella by applying these dogmatic rules to himself "Can it be that modesty may more betray our sense than woman's lightness?"[vi] (p125, Act 2, Scene 2) Angelo is clearly aware that by putting himself under such strict scrutiny he has made himself more likely to break the rules he is so driven to protect. By saying that to deny oneself pleasure creates a greater desire than even beauty could inspire, Angelo shows he is acutely aware of the problems that his conflicting personal and social values create.

Vivian Thomas writes in reference to Angelo "the physical side of love requires no apology: indeed, its opposite, sexual repression, is anything but wholesome"[vii] (Chapter 7, p236) Angelo then seeks to satisfy his desires, but without leaving his framework of ideals that prevent it. His level of hypocrisy demonstrates the problem with profoundly stringent personal and social restrictions. This problem being that they simply cannot be adhered to successfully. This frailty is part of the human condition, evident in Shakespeare's time as well as our own. Angelo's problem is different to that of Isabella, as she has many different and conflicting obligations to fulfil, forcing her into choices. Angelo however, simply does not have the willpower to be able to adhere to the ideals that he promotes. This shows that if even Angelo, who is described as being strict and Spartan in his bearing, has an ideology so uncompromising that he is destined to fail. Here the reality of Angelo's desire is shown to be a large problem that isn't dealt with during the play or at its conclusion. This leaves the problem to the audience who once again have to deal with a difficult and perplexing issue.

In reference to the end of the play, Angelo and his fate once again baffle those who might seek to reach a definitive and satisfying conclusion. Angelo is the villain of the drama and the source of antagonism throughout. Through convention it might be expected then that he would meet a fitting end as a villain in a Shakespearian play. This is traditionally an execution, or death at the hands of the heroes. Angelo is far more complex than a simple villain however and is not treated like one . He is aware of the crimes, failings and poor judgments that he has made, and when it becomes apparent that the Duke knows about them Angelo breaks with villainous tradition and asks for death[viii] (p195, Act 5, Scene 1). This is a confusing and unexpected response when one considers that Angelo has been prepared to commit the acts that he believes deserve death. It is only upon his discovery, his failings exposed, does he commit to the punishment that he judges to be the correct one for his crimes.

It might be argued that Angelo does this because throughout the play he is aware of the immorality of his actions but is also genuinely committed to do what he thinks is the right thing. He is prevented from acting in accord with his moral ethic by his overwhelming immoral desires. This would change his image during the play entirely. He would go from being a hypocritical tyrant to a tortured and flawed soul. This could even elicit sympathy for him in the audience, despite his distasteful sexual fury. They might become aware that Angelo genuinely hated breaking his Christian codes and morals. This in turn would shed light on his contradictory behaviour and decisions throughout the play. When he broke his promise to Isabella he did this because he believed that to let her brother live was an awful crime, whereas to have broken a promise was bad but acceptable in comparison to the alternative. So, when Angelo found out that he had been discovered he did what he considered to be the only option and requested a chance to confess and then face death. Such internal conflict is again a recognisable human failing and would engender sympathy in the audience.

However despite Angelo's express wish to confess, the audience is left without one, which would be crucial for an emotional release and resolution. Instead of giving catharsis in the form of a speech, his motives remain cloudy, meaning that they are left up to the audience's speculation and so undermines any sympathy they feel for him. Not only this but Angelo was not granted the death he desired. Instead, the Duke marries him to Juliana, which would appear to be a reward. As mentioned previously, it is tradition for Shakespearian comedies to end in a marriage or marriages. However, this one is a deliberately challenging affair, as it is used as a punishment for Angelo who had wished for death. This is inverted punishment, in which Angelo asks for the ultimate sanction but is granted an apparent reward that further confuses the plot of the play, or perhaps the audiences expectations. It means that there is no real conclusion for Angelo as a villain, merely as a character in Measure for Measure.

In conclusion, it is clear that Measure for Measure demonstrates flaws within contradictory personal, religious and social values without providing any natural conclusion. The challenges and problems presented to the characters allow no satisfactory resolution within the play. This is illustrated firstly by showing the hypocritical nature of Isabella, due to the conflict between the demands of society and of her own morals. The play puts her in an impossible position and shows the conflict between her opposing social and societal obligations. Similarly, Angelo demonstrates an example that of an un-cathartic conclusion as he is a villain that asks for punishment, and is rewarded instead. Angelo's motives are never laid bare, so that the audience is left to reach their own conclusions on the results of Angelo's actions. These demonstrate the conflicting values placed upon the characters within the play and show conclusively that the play offers no satisfactory release of emotions or adequate answers. Thus Shakespeare challenges his audience and convention in a manner that is often uncomfortable and is certainly unexpected.


[i] Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 7th print 2012

[ii] Stevenson, D. L. 1966. The achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for measure. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[iii] Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 7th print 2012

[iv] Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 7th print 2012

[v] Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 7th print 2012

[vi] Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 7th print 2012

[vii] The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's problem plays, Vivian Thomas, The Mackays of Chatham Ltd, 1987

[viii] Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 7th print 2012


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      Susan DunnHensley 4 years ago

      I am disturbed by the way that you have used my research in this article. You attribute the following quotation to me: "she is the living antidote to all human charity, to all generous, deeply concerned sympathy and love." In fact, that quotation comes from David Lloyd Stevenson's book The Achievement of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In my dissertation, I clearly identify him as the author of that statement, and my entire section on Isabella disagrees with that view. I would ask that you revise that section of your article to correctly attribute the quotation. If you have the opportunity to reread my work, you will clearly see that I offer a sympathetic, feminist reading of Isabella. ~ Thank you.