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"Morality and Mercy in Vienna": Duke Vincentio and Whitehall in Measure for Measure

Justin diFeliciantonio '10

Author's Note: Shakespeare's
Measure for Measure begins with Duke Vincentio, the ruler of Vienna, handing his power over Vienna's government to his deputy, Angelo. In his first days in command, Angelo declares that he will begin to enforce laws against licentious behavior. As a result, Claudio is sentenced to death for having impregnated his fiancée Juliet before wedding her. Claudio's friend Lucio convinces Isabella, Claudio's sister and a nun, to beseech Angelo to pardon her brother's life. Overcome with desire for Isabella, Angelo claims that he will free Claudio if she will make love to him. Isabella repudiates Angelo, in effect telling Claudio that, in order for her to maintain her chastity, he must die. Duke Vincentio, surreptitiously observing Angelo's rule while disguised as a friar, convinces Isabella to trick Angelo into believing that she will acquiesce to his demands. Mariana, a woman to whom Angelo once proposed but disgracefully never married, takes Isabella's place in Angelo's bed . After he unwittingly sleeps with Mariana, Angelo continues his attempt to have Claudio executed, but the Duke intervenes just in time to save Claudio's life. Casting off his disguise, the Duke returns to Vienna and exposes Angelo's hypocrisy. Isabella, despite believing that Claudio is dead, joins Mariana in imploring the Duke to show mercy to Angelo. The Duke commands that Angelo consummate his marriage with Mariana. He then reunites Claudio with his love Juliet, demands that Lucio propose marriage to a whore, and finally asks Isabella for her own hand in marriage.

Critics refer to Measure as a "problem play." This is, in part, due to the "disguised ruler," Duke Vincentio. Debate over the Duke's character often centers around the question: "How are fallible humans to judge the sins of their fellow mortals and still obey Christ's injunction... 'Judge not that ye be not judged?'"1 Most agree that Angelo, Vienna's corrupt surrogate ruler, is not able to strike an accord between the necessity of Christian mercy and the demands of state punishment. Scholars, however, dispute whether the Duke in Act V truly rectifies Angelo's rule. For some, the Duke is a character of positive reform, using his omniscience, craft, and disguise to properly execute the law. For others, the Duke is selfish and shows favoritism, and thus does not properly adjudicate the law. Furthermore, textual interpretation of the Duke is entangled with historical accounts of Measure's first performance. "Mesur for Mesur," written by "Shaxberd" and performed by "his Maiesties plaiers," was played for James I at his Whitehall holiday retreat on December 26, 1604.2 Most scholars agree that Shakespeare composed the play the same year it was played, or in the latter part of 1603. It is possible, then, that Shakespeare wrote Measure observing a considerable shift in England's political paradigm. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died, leading to the July coronation of the Scottish King James Stuart. Although preparations for James's first Christmas revelries as King were cut short by an untimely outbreak of the plague, celebrations were carried out at Whitehall the following year, in 1604.3 Indeed, Shakespeare and his Lord Chamberlain's Men production of Measure marked the opening of the Whitehall revelries as the first Christmas performance for James's English court.

I will focus on two parts of Measure: first, the reasoning the Duke gives in Act I for his disguise and, second, the judgment the Duke pronounces on Angelo in Act V. I also want to ask questions regarding the existence of the Duke's political valences. Is there a cultural resonance between the historical emergence of Measure's Duke and England's coronation of James as King? In particular, does the Duke's textual interpretation suggest a political affinity with James? I will attempt to answer these questions by critically engaging Leonard Tennenhouse's new historicist reading of Measure.4  Tennenhouse, in short, reads Measure in relation to political debates surrounding James's coronation. Insofar as he believes the Duke to be a character of reform, he provocatively argues that the Duke displays explicit Jacobean cultural energies, which together express a collective desire for monarchal absolutism. I contend that, contra Tennenhouse, the Duke's character is far from exclusively that of a reformer. Not every possible interpretation of the Duke is equally valid, but Measure supports multiple valid interpretations of the Duke's political resonance.

Tennenhouse approaches Measure by historically situating it among other "disguised ruler plays" concurrently performed in Jacobean England. In the same way Duke Vincentio goes into disguise to watch Angelo submit to carnal desire and tyranny, these plays feature a trickster figure—often a monarch—who surreptitiously "observes the state and witnesses both sexual misconduct and the abuses of political power."5 A large number of these plays, he points out, were performed between 1604 and 1606.6 Tennenhouse, then, not only denotes the temporal relation between Measure and James's 1603 coronation, he also recognizes the possible political significance of theatrical disguised ruler characters. In doing so, he sidesteps previous attempts to uncover Shakespeare's conscious political motives. Instead, Tennenhouse seeks out a cultural energy that speaks through the Duke, the disguised ruler genre, and public debate.

In uncovering Measure's political hermeneutic, Tennenhouse, contra allegorical interpretations, claims that "in seeking for such a master narrative [allegory]...we are caught within its hermeneutics and therefore helpless to understand their mechanism. Yet it is the very object of historical criticism itself to understand such mechanisms."7 In order to shed new interpretative light on Measure, he seeks to uncover a mechanism beyond an allegorical reading that still maintains the possibility that Shakespeare expresses his political deference through the Duke's characterization. As such, Tennenhouse is careful not to make an attempt at explaining Shakespeare's conscious political intentions. As he writes in the introduction to his book Power and Display, "I have not even attempted to show—as well one might in describing the political Shakespeare—how the writer immersed in this milieu sought to question political authority."8 Indeed, Shakespeare's absolute silence on his own authorship makes it very difficult to appraise his "true" political intentions, if any, in the composition of Measure. There are neither prefaces nor epistles accompanying the texts from the playwright.9 However, Shakespeare's reticence to write, as far as we know, thoughts about his authorship is not an obstacle for Tennenhouse's project, for he attempts instead "to show that, during the Renaissance, political imperatives were also aesthetic imperatives."10 As such, Tennenhouse's new historicism seeks out political resonances between Measure and the English political sphere.

In his effort to explicate this energy, and subsequently discern Measure's political valences, Tennenhouse presents a model that expounds literature's function in society. He claims to have elucidated the general machinery behind literary change: "[C]ertain modes and genres gain preference at a given moment because they elaborate some collective fantasy about the origins and limits of power," which leads him to conclude that "literary forms fall out of preference when they no longer provide an appropriate means for addressing the social and political interests of the literate classes."11  To connect new literary conventions to the literate classes' "fantas[ies]" on the "origins and limits of power," however, is not to say that literature simply mirrors socio-political debate. The "history of a culture is a history of all of its products."12 As such, literature should be conceived as a historical source just like any other written evidence from a similar context. Rather than existing autonomously, literary texts are active participants in socio-political debate, representing and contributing to the cultural energies propelling social change.13 Tennenhouse, then, interprets Duke Vincentio through a lens that validates James's rule. The Duke, he says, is an expression of Jacobean cultural energies which affirm a political desire for monarchal absolutism. Tennenhouse's interpretation depends upon the interdependence of two entities: first, historical evidence that the literate classes did think on the "origins and limits" of James's power in a way that was actually relevant to how James acted as King; and second, textual support in Measure which demonstrates that the Duke is a reformer and, by extension, an argument for absolutism.

Tennenhouse's political reading of Measure relies largely on a historical account of English debates over the "origins and limits of power." During his first years on the throne, James laid claim to "ancient rights," which allowed him the ability to exercise absolute authority over Parliament. However, men in Parliament believed that James had broken a fundamental rite of kingship. They declared that the monarch's power, in fact, was grounded in Parliament itself. Yet, James and the Commons were not the only contenders for state power; judicial authorities argued that actions taken by both institutional entities were subject to common law.14 Taking into consideration all three perspectives, Tennenhouse concludes that "[a]t this time in history...the literate classes comprised a state without a clear hierarchical structure," yet one "where power could not be imagined in any other form but a hierarchy."15

While he concedes that this debate took place years after the emergence of the disguised monarch plays, Tennenhouse argues that Measure, as well as its contemporaries, presents a debate over political hierarchy similar to that taking place in the public sphere.16 As a whole, he abstracts in the play a progression from a decentralized, proto-state bureaucracy to a centralized hierarchal paradigm. The bureaucratic element of this progression becomes manifest when the Duke goes into disguise, leaving Angelo, Escalus, and a complex of assistants in control of Vienna. Over time, "the machinary [sic] of the state takes control of the deputies and substitutes" in charge, ultimately corrupting them.17  Tennenhouse calls attention to Angelo's assent to carnal desire, as well as his hypocritical condemnation of others doing the same: Angelo sentences Claudio to death for sexual licentiousness, but uses his power in attempting to coerce Isabella to lie with him. Moreover, while Angelo pronounces an unreasonable sentence for Claudio, purveyors of vice in Vienna generally escape punishment. Indeed, Angelo's office perverts his conception of mercy and punishment, as well as his own behavior.18

In contrast, the Duke, when he throws off his disguise in Act V, amends the flaws of Angelo's rule that have led to near disaster. The Duke has the power to "bring Angelo to justice, rescue Claudio, protect Isabella, enforce the pre-nuptial contract between Angelo and Mariana, and punish Lucio."19  Unlike Angelo, who is subsumed by the power of his office, the Duke is able to negotiate the paradoxes of human law, namely through an omniscience obtained by his disguised, God-like status:

                                    O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes. (V.i.374-78)20

Angelo's lines reflect a realization that his "unmeasured" bureaucracy has been watched all along by a highly capable being—the Duke—who has waited for the right moment to intervene and play the role of the reformer. The Duke is the "dread lord," who subjects Angelo's "guiltiness" to the Duke's superior moral judgment. This is not to contend that the Duke waltzes through Measure as a trickster unscathed. Disguised as a friar, the Duke engages in degrading encounters, which set back his attempts to restore mercy and justice.21 At one point, he is tricked by Angelo, who makes the Duke (Friar) believe that a letter sent to Angelo has induced pardon for Claudio's life, only for the Duke to listen as a royal messenger reaffirms to the prison Provost Claudio's death (IV.ii.102-07).

Yet, despite such demeaning encounters, the "crafty" substitutions the Duke enacts—notably the switching of the pirate Ragozine's head for Claudio's, and of Mariana for Isabella in Angelo's bed—allow him to temporarily meet the law's demands as conceived by Angelo. Hence, the Duke is able to prevent Angelo's perverted sense of mercy and punishment from causing harm. Though degraded throughout the play, the Duke's wisdom and craft comes to the fore in Act V.22 True to the punishment his profligate crime deserves, but still embodying the mercy of Christian forgiveness, the Duke ultimately repeals his death sentence on Angelo [I cite: "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!" (V.i.417).] Instead, the Duke orders Angelo to marry his former fiancée Mariana, the woman he was engaged to marry until she lost her dowry at sea.

Thus, Tennenhouse concludes, Measure's "dramatic conflict finds its resoltuion [sic] in an argument for absolutism."23 In the question of political resonance between the play, its performance at Whitehall, and James's coronation, Measure does not reveal the conscious intentions of Shakespeare, but instead represents the transition between the "supplanted" and the "restored father," put otherwise, the Jacobean cultural energy that validates James's rule.24 That is not to say, however, that England's literate classes were not anxious over public debates between the King, Parliament, and common law. But as a whole, Measure expresses a political hermeneutic, an energy embodying the literate classes' desire for a "true monarch." For Tennenhouse, they wanted a patriarch like the Duke, one who was "absolutely devoted to the law and absolute master of it," who could strike a balance between Christian mercy and state punishment.25

Though Tennenhouse's argument is eloquent, I believe his reading overly simplifies the Duke's character. He presents the Duke as a reformer, one who exemplifies mercy and punishment in his treatment of Angelo. But this Act V "resolution" can also be read as a culmination of self-serving motives, specifically when put into the context of the Duke's personal revelations in Act I and his role in the play's resolution in Act V.  These complications in the Duke's interactions with Angelo make it difficult for me to support Tennenhouse's claim that Measure expresses a cultural desire for absolutism. When we call into doubt his rigid textual interpretation, his explanation of the resonance between the play and James begins to fall apart; for all of the moral reform he allegedly enacts in Act V, we are hard pressed not to question the Duke's reasons for disguise. One has only to look to Act I, when readers are first introduced to the Duke.26 Here, the Duke explains Vienna's need for reform and his leave of absence, both of which clarify his decision to hand power over to Angelo. In this dynamic, Tennenhouse's argument, while plausible, encounters complications.

It is obvious that, in his conversation with Friar Thomas, the Duke believes Vienna to be "slipping" backwards into the moral perils of vice: "We have strict statutes and most biting laws, / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds, / Which for this fourteen years we have let slip" (I.iii.19-21). The Duke affirms this judgment in Act V, when he remarks that his disguised perspective has made him "a looker-on here in Vienna, / Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble / Till it o'errun the stew" (V.i.325-327).27 It seems reasonable, at first glance, that if the Duke should present anyone with the power to clean up the city's vice, it should be Angelo. Tennenhouse would agree when Escalus affirms that "If any in Vienna be of worth / To undergo such ample grace and honor, / It is Lord Angelo" (I.i.22-24).28 Additionally, the Duke tells Friar Thomas that Angelo is "[a] man of stricture and firm abstinence" (I.iii.12).29 Angelo's "seemers" indicate that he will execute his office with a spirit of wisdom and temperance (I.iii.54).

But one cannot help but ask why the Duke does not administer justice to Vienna himself. The answer is revealed in his conversation with Friar Thomas. In expressing his "purpose / More grave and wrinkled" to the Friar (I.iii.5), the Duke appears to seek sanctuary from the expectations of public office:

My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth, and cost, witless bravery keeps. (I.iii.7-10)

We could, of course, give the Duke the benefit of the doubt and interpret the lines simply as a yearning for a much needed vacation (a "life removed") away from the responsibilities of dealing with the demands of "haunt assemblies" of popular youth (I.iii.8-9).30 Yet his desire for absence is more deserving of our disapproval. As the Duke points out, Vienna has not seen such a depraved state of affairs in "fourteen years" (I.iii.21). Indeed, the Duke chooses to leave Vienna when it needs him most.

The Duke's motives for retreating into disguise become increasingly suspect as he continues to make his thoughts known to the friar. Our perception of the Duke changes dramatically when we discover that, first, he attributes Vienna's condition to his own leniency in governance and, second, concludes that he is unable to amend that condition:

Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do; for we bid this be done
When evil deeds have their permissive pass
And not the punishment. (I.iii.36-39)

We may laud the Duke's Christian zeal—"twas my fault"—for confessing his sins (I.iii.36). Yet, corollary to his desire to retreat from public, we may also read his excuse for inaction as an attempt to "disguise" his bad rule.31

Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the Duke does not want to abandon the city to its vice. Thus the Duke's solution to "substitute" himself for Angelo, "Who may in th'ambush of my name strike home, / And yet my nature never in the fight / To do in slander." (I.iii.41-43). Though afraid of popular opinion—"my nature never in the fight"—the Duke, it seems, intends to enlist Angelo's "firm abstinence" in bringing Christian morality back to the city (I.iii.12). This is clear in the instructions the Duke gives Angelo before granting him his office: "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart." (I.i.45-46).32 But such lines could also be read as an example of the Duke's incompetence, his inability to prevent the principles of "mortality and mercy" from being perverted by Angelo's human "tongue and heart."33  Indeed, the charge becomes the measure against which we judge both the Duke and Angelo in the play: punishment's firm "mortality" is to be balanced against Christian "mercy."34

That is not to say, however, that we do not have reason to question the Duke's judgment in handing power over to Angelo. First, as even Angelo himself attests, he is inexperienced: "Let there be some more test made of my mettle / Before so noble and so great a figure / Be stamped upon it" (I.i.49-51).35 Vienna's problems are extensive, warranting an experienced leader, not a novice. The Duke's ostensibly magnanimous intentions come under fire when we learn that, all along, he has known about Angelo's (reprobate) interactions with Mariana.36 Thus, one could argue, contra Tennenhouse, that in addition to choosing an inexperienced figure, the Duke elects a leader possessing questionable moral character, one unable to properly execute "mortality and mercy."

Hence, the Duke's reticence to face Vienna's problems himself—insofar as he retreats to the "life removed" and appoints the inexpert Angelo—could be interpreted as a "desire to free himself from the restraints of political responsibility."37 The Duke, contrary to Tennenhouse's reading of him, may not just be preoccupied with his own shyness, but actively seeking his own ends. Insofar as he is favorably received by the public in Act V, the Duke's motives for leaving the city are suspect; leaving and then reclaiming power from Angelo clearly works in the Duke's political favor. For if Angelo harshly enforces laws condemning sexual licentiousness—and 'wicked' Vienna spites him for it—the Duke may return to soften Angelo's dictates, thus garnering the good graces of his people while still achieving some measure of reform. And if Angelo does not properly carry out "mortality and mercy," the Duke may return, again to Vienna's good graces, to amend Angelo's hypocrisy.38

These interpretations have far-reaching consequences. As Tennenhouse argues, the Duke's omniscience and craft come to fruition in Act V, insomuch as the Duke reforms Angelo's corrupt proto-bureaucracy, whereby "the sheer arbitrariness of the law becomes a unified misinterpretation of the law, one that punishes virtue and equates self-interest with justice."39 Through craft, the Duke reforms that corrupt bureaucracy and reestablishes "distinctions which are basic to the representation of a civilized order," the proper execution of Christian mercy and state punishment. Unlike Angelo, the Duke does not "punish" virtue, nor does he "equate" self-interest with overall justice.40 Regardless, the suspect nature of the Duke's motives in Act I looms heavy over Tennenhouse's Act V interpretation. Instead of a display of order's triumph over chaos—i.e., the Duke's virtuous monarchy over and against Angelo's corrupt bureaucracy—the Duke can be interpreted as a complicit member of Angelo's poor governance. Certainly, one can unearth duplicities in the Duke's motives throughout the text. (Consider, for example, his role in the bed-trick, which dupes Angelo into sleeping with Mariana instead of Isabella.) But in the interest of scope, I believe I can sufficiently complicate Tennenhouse's interpretation through a reading of the Duke's behavior in Act V, specifically his judgment of Angelo. For although the Duke may appear to establish civilizing distinctions that have been lost during Angelo's rule, the Duke can also be seen as a continuation of the "sheer arbitrariness of the law," just as guilty as those on which he passes judgment.

In his undisguised encounter with Angelo at the beginning of Act V, the Duke foreshadows the dramatic action that follows. He commends Angelo, asking him to:

Give me your hand,
And let the subject see, to make them know
That outward courtesies would fain proclaim
Favors that keep within... (V.i.14-17)

If we read Tennenhouse's larger interpretation of Measure into the Duke's lines, we may infer that the Duke makes a hidden advertisement. The "outward courtesies," or public ceremonies, will indeed manifest themselves according to the "favors" that the Duke "keep[s] within," i.e., his intent to punish Angelo and reform Vienna's rule (V.i.16-17). However, if we grant the Duke's complicated motives, as revealed in Act I, we may read the lines literally. In the same way that he granted power to Angelo based on contradictory—or perhaps even absent—logic, the Duke will show Angelo "outward courtesy" and "favors" in his final judgment. Thus, just like Angelo, the Duke could easily prove just as inept at resolving the paradoxes of the law.

Later in Act V, when the Duke sloughs off his friar identity, Angelo confesses to his crimes. He begs no mercy from his master: "But let my trial be mine own confession / Immediate sentence then and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg" (V.i.380-382). The Duke fools Angelo into thinking that he believes the plea to be insincere; the Duke cries out that "Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure" (V.i.418-419). This method of punishment, however, runs contrary to Christian ethics. Indeed, as Isabella and Mariana beseech the Duke for mercy, he seems to come to a Christian conclusion: "Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well. / Look that you love your wife, her worth worth yours. / I find an apt remission in myself;" (V.i.507-509). Tennenhouse believes that this "apt remission" toward Angelo is one of the Duke's master strokes. Angelo has already shown his willingness ("O my dread lord") to be reprimanded by the Duke (V.i.374). But does the Duke's show of mercy truly bring resolve the law and reform the political order?

The Duke's Christian "remission" may be a ruse, the consummation of "favors" the Duke harbors toward his friend and second-in-command (V.i.14). The Duke could indeed enact a "sham trial."41 Angelo sentenced Claudio to the "very block," where he would have "stooped to death."42 And he even attempted to win sexual favors from Isabella, in exchange for her brother's life (V.i.422-23). The Duke, however, glosses over Angelo's grievous crimes—"your evil quits you well"—simply calling on him to marry Mariana. If the Duke is as self-absorbed as he seems to be in leaving Vienna, the argument can easily be made that the Duke's show of mercy is disguised cronyism. And if the Duke drops the charges against Angelo,43 surely the Duke does not meet the state's demand for punishment, fails to bring into harmony "Mortality and mercy in Vienna" (I.i.45). The Duke, like Angelo, is just as susceptible to power's corrupting effects, his "monarchal reform" just as prone to self-serving motivations.44

Certainly, the prospect of Duke Vincentio's selfishness, both in his decision to go into disguise and the judgment he pronounces on Angelo, deconstructs Tennenhouse's interpretation of the Duke as a reformer. As such, Tennenhouse's larger claim also loses much of its potency. For, if the Duke cannot distinguish himself from Angelo in his relationship to the law, it is less certain that he embodies the culture's desire for political absolutism. Indeed, a sincere monarch, in Tennenhouse's terms, is not a self-serving and preferential monarch. While Tennenhouse avoids the pitfalls of allegorical criticism by seeking out political valences in the Duke's character, it appears clear that one cannot, without difficulty, utilize historical evidence to construct a cultural resonance between the Duke's disguised ruler character and the Jacobean political sphere.

Measure for Measure's 1604 performance at Whitehall certainly represents a potential intersection of aesthetic and political deference to King James. Yet after engaging Tennenhouse's new historicism, it seems that Shakespeare's relation to Whitehall leaves much to be desired. Competing interpretations of the Duke's character throw into doubt Tennenhouse's new historicist reading, that the English literate classes could not imagine power "in any other form but a hierarchy."45 That is not to say, however, that his textual interpretation of the Duke is without merit. As we have seen, Tennenhouse's argument is supported by several passages from the text. Indeed, Measure retains the possibility for equally valid, but contesting, readings of the text—that is, the basis for several competing truth claims. Accepting that the Duke's character allows for a plurality of interpretations, we may construct a more nuanced and complex relationship between Renaissance literature and English society. Shakespeare, in authoring intricate political valences into the Duke's character, may effectively capture the reality (read: ambivalence) of Jacobean politics. In this sense, Shakespeare does not synthesize his culture's political concerns into systematic truths. Rather, he conveys the complexity of the subject's relation to the social, a cultural phenomenon that for us, as well as him, resists unraveling.


Bawcutt, N. W, " 'He Who the Sword of Heaven Will Bear': The Duke Versus Angelo in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 37 (1984), pp. 89-97.

Bennett, Josephine Waters, Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment, New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Brown, Carolyn E., "Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and King James I of England: 'the Poorest Princes in Christendom'," CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 26:1 (1996), pp. 51-78.

Gelb, Hal, "Duke Vincentio and the Illusion of Comedy or All's Not Well That Ends Well," Shakespeare Quarterly 22.1 (1971), pp. 25-34.

Goldberg, Jonathan, "James I and the Theater of Conscience," ELH 46.3 (1979), 379-98.

Johnson, Nora, "Coda: The Shakespearean Silence" in The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lewis, Cynthia, " 'Dark Deeds Darkly Answered': Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Quarterly 34.3 (1983), pp. 271-89.

Shakespeare, William, Complete Works of Shakespeare, The 6th Edition, ed. David Bevington, New York: Longman, 2008.

Tennenhouse, Leonard, "Representing Power: Measure for Measure in Its Time," Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture 15.2-3 (1982), pp. 139-56.

Tennenhouse, Leonard, "Shakespeare and the Scene of Reading" in Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres, New York: Methuen, 1986, pp. 1-16.

Wheeler, Richard P., "When our deep plots do pall: The Problem Comedies and Shakespeare" in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, pp. 1-33.

White, Hayden, "The Problem of Change in Literary History," New Literary History 7.1 (1975), pp. 97-111.


  1. See Introduction to "Measure for Measure" in the Complete Works of Shakespeare, The 6th Edition, ed. David Bevington, (New York: Longman, 2008), p. 415. Quotations from the play follow this text.
  2. Bevington, "Measure for Measure," p. 414.
  3. Bennett, Royal Entertainment, p. 7.
  4. See Leonard Tennenhouse, "Representing Power: Measure for Measure in its Time," Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture, 15.2-3 (1982): 139-56. Tennenhouse's argument on Measure, in general, is divided into two parts. In the first, he argues that the Duke's trickster guise serves him as a vehicle for positive social reform and, thus, is a manifestation of collective deference to political absolutism. In the second, he claims that the Duke is an "enforcer of traditional rules of courtship and marriage," in contrast to those of Elizabethan England. Due to the limited scope of my essay, I have constrained my argument to this first section of "Representing Power."
  5. Ibid, p. 139.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p. 140.
  8. Ibid, Power on Display, p. 6. For the book's reprint of "Representing Power," see pp. 154-71.
  9. See Johnson, Nora, "Coda: The Shakespearean Silence" in The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 162.
  10. Tennenhouse, Power on Display, p. 6.
  11. Ibid, "Representing Power," pp. 140-41.As he himself remarks in a note following this passage, his theory on literary change draws heavily on Hayden White, "The Problem of Change in Literary History," New Literary History 7.1 (1975), pp. 97-111. I believe that Tennenhouse is likely referring to White's claim that effective "literary history"-explanations of resonance between literature and contemporary events-must synthesize both the work's text and historical context:

    We must move to the middle sections of the historical field, the areas occupied, not by the 'the whole historical context' on the one side and by the 'individual literary work' on the other, but the ground on which they meet. For neither the whole context nor the individual work can be the subject of a truly historical account. The 'history of literature,' like the 'history of society,' must be an account of a multivariant field of causal occurrence (p. 105, emphasis White's).

    Between literature and historical chronicle, White argues, there is language, "the medium that binds the work, the artist and the audience together in a common mode of praxis which is at once the expression and the reflection of a shared experience in the world" (p. 106).
  12. Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 141.
  13. Ibid.
  14. For Tennenhouse's historical sources-which treats the dispute between King James, Parliament, and English common law-see Alan G. R. Smith, "Constitutional Ideas and Parliamentary Developments in England" in The Reign of James VI and I, ed. Alan G. R. Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), pp. 161-63.
  15. This paragraph is based upon Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 144. For the historical evidence from which Tennenhouse begins to connect the collective literate classes' (and playwrights') actual conceptions of power to James, through the Basilikon Doron, see Jonathan Goldberg, "James I and the Theater of Conscience," ELH 46.3 (1979), pp. 379-98. Goldberg claims that James embeds in the Basilikon Doron irreconcilable personal anxieties over his perception by his subjects. I can see the first formulations of Tennenhouse's politically charged literary theory when Goldberg writes:

    James attempts to combine the two theories [Stoic theory of equity and Divine Right assertion] so that he can be both father to his people and assure himself that the dictates of his conscience are always right. Yet these two beliefs imply mutually contradictory consequences; if he owns his subjects, then their consciences are irrelevant; if he has right conscience, then so too do his subjects (p. 382).
  16. Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 144.
  17. Ibid, p. 142.
  18. For an interesting alternate viewpoint on Angelo and the Duke's conceptions of mercy and justice, see N. W. Bawcutt, " 'He Who the Sword of Heaven Will Bear': The Duke Versus Angelo in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 37 (1984), pp. 89-97. Bawcutt claims that the Duke "does not differ from Angelo by advocating mercy...The difference is rather that the Duke, in contrast to Angelo, believes in a personal or reflexive view of the law: when faced with a prisoner the judge must look into himself, and is disqualified from judgment if he is guilty of the same offence. If, however, the judge has been able to restrain his own tendency to a particular sin, he is perfectly entitled to punish that sin in other people" (Bawcutt, pp. 93-4).
  19. Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 143.
  20. Ibid.
  21. In another notable example, the Duke is slandered by Lucio. The Duke, disguised as a friar, engages Lucio in conversation only, to his dismay, to find that Lucio thinks him to have knowledge of "the service," or prostitution (III.ii.117).
  22. Tennenhouse also cites textual evidence reading the Duke in this manner: "Craft against vice I must apply" (III.ii.270).
  23. Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 145.
  24. Ibid, p. 154.
  25. Ibid.
  26. See Carolyn E. Brown's "Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and King James I of England: 'the Poorest Princes in Christendom'," CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History 26:1 (1996), pp. 51-78. Also see Hal Gelb's "Duke Vincentio and the Illusion of Comedy or All's Not Well That Ends Well," Shakespeare Quarterly 22.1 (1971), pp. 25-34. Finally, see Cynthia Lewis's "'Dark Deeds Darkly Answered': Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Quarterly 34.3 (1983), pp. 271-89.
  27. Bevington, Introduction to "Measure for Measure," p. 414.
  28. Lewis, "Dark Deeds," p. 274.
  29. Ibid, p. 275.
  30. As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Goldberg argues that the Basilikon Doron reflects James's personal unease at how his subjects consciously perceived the monarchy:

    At issue here seems to be the question of whether the royal mind can ever be accessible to the populace; or, viewed from another perspective, whether James believes that he is being misunderstood or is afraid that he is being understood all too well and wishes a philosophical means to invalidate correct but potentially seditious perception (p. 380).

    Although Goldberg does not apply his reading of the Basilikon Doron to Measure, I find that there are moments when the Duke displays a similar anxiety over popular opinion. As he says to Escalus:

    I'll privily away. I love the people
    But do not like to stage me to their eyes;
    Though it do well, I do not relish well
    Their loud applause and "aves" vehement,
    Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
    That does affect it. (I.i.68-71)

    Like Goldberg's conclusion regarding James, the Duke worries the populace will "misunderst[an]d"-"underst[an]d"-him. Certainly, this kind of anxiety over public representation would obstruct the Duke's desire to take a public stance against Vienna's corruption. Goldberg's affinity with this passage challenges Bennett and Tenenhouse's interpretation of the Duke as reformer and deference to James. If we disregard Tennenhouse's caution regarding attempts to seek out Shakespeare's true conscious political intentions, we may utilize Goldberg to engender a multitude of perspectives on the political intentionality of Shakespeare's authorship.

    Lewis seems to affirm, I think, the validity of this challenge to Bennett and Tennenhouse. But in its stead, she posits a very interesting alternative: she believes that Shakespeare's political intentions in constructing the character of the Duke may have been pedagogical: "If, as Brian Rose argues, the Duke resembles James I, whose 'fear of crowds was one of [his] weaknesses,' it may well be that Shakespeare saw in the King's aloofness a potential political hazard. A play that largely pays tribute to the King might also convey some criticism of James's 'neglect of state' " ("Dark Deeds," p. 276).

    While I think Brown errs in not sifting through the Duke's motivations as carefully as Lewis-"the Duke never elucidates why he assumes the persona of a friar"-she would likely emphasize the subversive, rather than pedagogical, qualities of the lines ("The Poorest Princes," p. 56). This seems implicit in her claim that "Shakespeare is drawing analogies between the situation of Act 5 of his play and the actions of his king in order to question an abuse of power-an exercise of cruelty and of partisan power based on personal preferences" (p. 54).

    Concerned more with the play's problematic comic elements and structures, Gelb does not consider Shakespeare's political objectives in Measure. Within the play, however, he does pass judgment on the Duke. For Gelb, the Duke is ultimately "more absorbed in his own plots and gravity than anxious for the welfare of the state." But this leads him to conclude, I think, on the side of Brown. "He is not a villain," he says, "Nor is he totally blind, but he is a man lacking understanding of the nature of his world" ("All's Not Well" p. 33).
  31. This idea owes largely to Lewis: "even if Angelo inaugurates a stricter application of the laws, the Duke will still have to answer for Angelo and assume such responsibility later if rigor is to continue" ("Dark Deeds," p. 275).
  32. Lewis, "Dark Deeds," p. 271.
  33. Bawcutt, "The Duke Versus Angelo," p. 92.
  34. Lewis, "Dark Deeds," p. 271.
  35. Brown, "The Poorest Princes," p. 56. Gelb, "All's Not Well," p. 32. Lewis, "Dark Deeds," p. 274.
  36. Lewis, "Dark Deeds," p. 274. As Lewis references in her notes, "[t]he Duke's knowledge of Angelo is indicated not only in the Duke's narrative to Isabella (III.i.197-269), but also in Mariana's suggestion that the Duke has often come to visit her in a friar's disguise (IV.i.8-9)." Both of Lewis's suggestions are valid. The Duke says of Angelo that he "Left her in her tears, and dried not one of them / with his comfort; swallowed his vows whole, pretend- / ing in her discoveries of dishonor" (III.i.227-229). There is confirmation from Mariana's perspective, as well: "Here comes a man of comfort, whose advice / Hath often stilled my brawling discontent" (IV.i.8-9).
  37. Lewis, p. 275.
  38. The political outcomes I explore here could, specifically, explain the Duke's ambiguous dictate, "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart." (I.i.45-46). It is irrelevant to the Duke whether or not Angelo exemplifies or perverts "Mortality and mercy in Vienna." On his return, the Duke will still return to a politically favorable situation.
  39. Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 146.
  40. Ibid, p. 147.
  41. Brown, "The Poorest Princes," p. 58.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Ibid.
  44. The Duke's motives are also thrown into question by his interactions with Lucio in Act III, scene ii. I will not, however, engage analysis on this topic in the main body of my essay. I believe I have already sufficiently called into question Tennenhouse's positive reading of the Duke with my analysis of the dynamic between the Duke and Angelo in Act I. For a more in-depth look at the significance of Lucio's slander, see Gelb, "All's Not Well," pp. 30, 33.

    In curtailing my project's length, I have also neglected to consider the Duke's punishment of Lucio. A critical look at the Duke's treatment of Lucio in comparison to his treatment of Angelo reveals great disparities and can serve to accentuate the Duke's favoritism. For a good discussion of this inequity, as well as supporting historical evidence relating the Duke to James's own alleged favoritism, see Brown, "The Poorest Princes," pp. 61-75.
  45. Tennenhouse, "Representing Power," p. 144.

    Justin diFeliciantonio is a senior honors student. He will graduate in the spring with a major in English Literature and a minor in Religion. As a student in Professor Nora Johnson's Shakespeare seminar, Justin was struck by Measure for Measure's varied history of interpretation—in particular, debate over Duke Vincentio's alleged altruism—and decided to investigate further. After weeks of excitement and pain, there was a paper. Justin aspires to become a professor in the humanities, with the hope that—through discourse with others—he will figure out a way to calm the rage for order and find contentment in this world. He lives in Columbus, GA.