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Shakespeare's Measure For Measure Essay

4243 words - 17 pages

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

This reading of Measure for Measure will try to do more than draw attention to the extent to which Shakespeare goes beyond the conventional happy ending in this play. There are indications that the conclusions of many of the comedies are not really meant to bear up to close scrutiny; in Jaques¹ words, their loving voyages are not victual¹d for very long. In Measure for Measure we are openly challenged to question the adequacy of attaching a happy ending to a deeply troubling play. It seems that a stern question, regarding human nature and the adequacy of the comic resolution, cannot be deferred any longer. How do we preserve a community that will sustain ...view middle of the document...

In this essay, we shall concern ourselves with Shakespeare¹s suggestively incomplete account of the process through which a self-professed philosopher-king forsakes contemplation to rescue his carnally en-mired dukedom.

While the subject matter of this play is unequivocally political, Shakespeare is not offering political blueprints. We must learn from his unequalled ability to depict and illustrate the workings of the human soul. Poetry is a tool at the disposal of the statesman and Shakespeare pleads convincingly for the respectability of his art. However, the imagination cannot create virtue in the real world; only individuals can do this and they are influenced by other factors that reside outside the purview of the imagination. Statesmanship has to deal with the object world, and its task is to overcome the external obstacles to the recognition of man¹s capacity for true humanity. The poet¹s task is to educate the ruler in self-knowledge; like the slave at a Roman Triumph, he must continually remind his ruler that it is no disgrace to be a man.

Measure for Measure is Shakespeare's most dramatic depiction of the battle between the desires and reason. The initial situation is the opposite of the standard comic beginning. The political consequences of comic toleration are seen to be just as unfortunate as the repression imposed on the desires by rational inflexibility. In the real world, such extreme measures set in motion dialectical processes that bring the other extreme into power thereby compounding the damage caused by the original action. Comedy and tragedy are not remedies for each other; we seek a qualitatively superior model for human conduct that will embody the insights of both and the faults of neither. We seek to end the increasingly typical pattern of events that alternates tyranny with sporadic bouts of anarchistic democracy. Ultimately, both positions derive from a pessimistic view of man, which could be used to justify tyrannical tragedy, or celebrate anarchic comedy. This misanthropic model spawned the revengeful and vicious dialectic that demanded measure for measure. Such an alternation between extremes must be replaced by a more moderate and enlightened view. This model must realize and sustain the human potentialities that were identified in the middle comedies, while it guards against weaknesses that can now be addressed as such. As Vincentio observed "There is so great a fever on goodness that only the dissolution of it must cure it" (III.ii.222-23). In other words, a radical 'transvaluation of values' must be undertaken. We have to go beyond the hypocritical Œfamily values¹ of Angelo (how much is your family worth?) and the scarcely different free market values of unpurged Vienna.

Although Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure is luckier than Rosalind's father and Prospero, in that he has not been deposed for his inefficiency, he is clearly not very far from this stage. Just as the two deposed Dukes...

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