Sunday, February 28, 2010

First Impressions

Richard II is extremely complicated due to the large cast and complex family history. The story centers around the royal family, which is the object of huge scandal, disloyalty and deception. The first two acts reminded me of Measure for Measure in many respects. Both begin with the introduction of bad rulers who are leaving their thrones. In Measure for Measure, the Duke puts Angelo in charge because he has messed up so badly and experiments with what a new, stricter ruler could do for the nation. King Richard has no such desires. He leaves his country in the hands of his elderly uncle, the Duke of York, because he is available, not because he hopes his uncle will be a good leader.
The Duke in Measure for Measure may have been selfish and cowardly, but he was interested in bettering his country. He ruined his country because he wanted to be liked and he was intimidated by his position. Richard, on the other hand, has ruined his country due to keeping a large court and spending his money frivolously. Richard leaves in Act II to go to war in Ireland. I was confused as to why exactly he was going- was he participating in the war, or supervising it? Either way I know that he was going to protect his investments and connections in Ireland. He displayed no interest in bettering his country or himself as a leader.
In the first scene, I thought that perhaps Richard was a good king, because he seemed fair when he was trying to obtain the truth from Bolingbroke and Mowbray, but as the play went on, I found him to be increasingly shady. First, he does not seem to have any actual interest in who is telling the truth, and who is lying to him. He doesn’t even allow them to fight; he just bans both of them from England. Then, after banning his cousin, he goes to visit his heartbroken, dying uncle on his death bed. He should be mourning, but he is instead joyous, because that way he can have his uncle’s fortune. Then he leaves his country in the hands of his other uncle, who is old and not prepared to take over.
I feel the relationship between Richard and his uncle Gaunt is an important one to examine. On his death bed, Gaunt gives a beautiful speech in which he clearly sees through Richard and seems to curse his future. Between lines 40 and 69 (“This throne of kings, this sceptred isle,/ this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,/ this other Eden, demi-paradise,/ this fortress built by nature for herself,…That England that was wont to conquer others/ hath made a shameful conquest of itself./ Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,/ how happy then were my ensuing death!) Gaunt invokes a feeling of unease and leads me to think this man knows more than Richard would have us believe. I feel that Richard is a bad man and a bad leader. I am wondering if this “curse” will play a bigger part in the rest of the play. Having read Richard III I know that prophecies play a big part in these family tragedies and I want to see where that leads in this play.

Is it better to be benevolent or tyrannical?

So after finishing the play I'm a little ticked off that Shakespeare doesn't give us good textual evidence for whether or not Isabella is going to marry the duke. The duke says in 5.1.485-486 "Is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake/ Give me your hand, and say you will be mine." Isabella says nothing after that. Instead the duke talks to Lucio for the rest of the play, and Isabella is strangely quiet. I think it would be interesting to see how a director would interpret this. There could be non-verbal cues like Isabella throwing her arms around the duke, and that could mean a yes, or she could just nod, and in that way the director could add his own touch. It's like when we were watching that clip from "The Merchant of Venice" and the director showed Jessica still with her mother's ring. That throws Jessica in an entirely different light. Previous to that she is shown with the textual evidence as a bit of a spoiled brat, just wasting away her father's money in foreign countries, but the inclusion of a scene with her with her mother's ring shows that she wasn't as frivolous as the reports had suggested. In this same way the director is left with an opportunity to change the nature of the play through non-verbal cues. We can consider Isabella's character for evidence of how she would most likely react. The question is whether Isabella would marry or have sex with someone if she was threatened, or if the person did something for her in the hopes that that act would endear her to that person. Angelo tried the first method. In 2.4.141-144 he tries his luck with Isabella.

Angelo: "Plainly conceive, I love you."

Isabella: "My brother did love Juliet,

And you tell me that he shall die for it."

Angelo: "He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love."

Of course this tactic will not work with Isabella, and we know this before she even replies because of what she has said in 2.2.29-30 "There is a vice that most I do abhor,/ And most desire should meet the blow of justice," and the vice she is referring to is promiscuous sex, or premarital sex, of which her brother is guilty. Knowing that about Isabella, and also that she is becoming a nun, it should not be surprising that she declines Angelo's offer, even though it means her brother will die. She is only petitioning for her brother because he is her brother, and not because she approves of what he did, and she is not going to engage in the same act just to save him. The whole play depends on the fact that Isabella will not bend to this type of pressure. It's strange then that the duke expects her to marry him at the end of the play. True, he saved her brother's life, but I'm not convinced that Isabella would go along with this. She seems to value her chastity more than she values her brother's life, so even though the duke saves her brother's life, I'm not sure that Isabella would now be willing to give up her virginity to the duke, even after all he had done for her. I would be interested to see how different directors interpret this scene, because as it is a comedy one can expect a marriage and a somewhat happy ending, but there is enough evidence in the play to suggest that perhaps Isabella is not the type to marry, and could still be considering becoming a nun, even after all this. True, the duke is not merely asking for sex but marriage, and he is not forcing her to do anything but just asks for her hand, still Isabella may not marry him. I really wish Shakespeare had just added some sort of response for her.
I really don't think Isabella is going to marry the duke. She was planning on becoming a nun, and values her chastity more than her brother's life. While it is extremely nice, and I think she will be eternally grateful to the duke, I don't think she will marry him. I don't think she wants to marry anyone.

38 Days of Shakespeare

I recently came across this blog, which is setting up a worldwide virtual reading group that will attempt to read the entire Shakespearean canon over the next 38 days (beginning March 1). Just in case you didn't have anything else going on in your life!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Duke's selfishness

Measure for Measure begins with the Duke temporarily handing over the ruler ship to Angelo. The play raises the question of what is the Duke’s reason and motivation for his leave of absence. Is he simply testing his people and Angelo? Is he doing it for the betterment of his country? Or did he have a more selfish motivation in mind? With the theme of disguises dominating the play can we really believe what anyone says?

In Act1.3 the Duke gives an explanation for his leave of absence and his choice of Angelo to be the ruler. The Duke tells a friar “We have strict statues and most biting laws, / The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds, / Which for fourteen years we have let slip” (1.3, 19-22). In this statement, the Duke knows he has been a passive ruler, letting people get away with too much. He later states why he gave Angelo the position. He states “I have on Angelo imposed the office, / Who may in th’ ambush of my name strike home, And yet my nature never in the fight/ Tallow in slander” (1.3, 40-43). This scene suggests the Duke is executing his plan for both the betterment of his country and to make himself look good. He is making Angelo do his dirty work, so he can come out looking great. The question becomes what is more important to him, the betterment of his country or his own reputation. Is it possible he just puts in the bit about bettering the country just for public perception? With the theme of disguises dominating the play I do not necessarily believe he is executing his plan to better the country, but rather to become a popular and liked ruler by his people. The Duke seems to set Angelo up to fail and what doesn’t happen the Duke makes happen while in disguise as a friar.

Over the next three acts, the Duke disguised as a friar causes havoc and contributes to the chaos the country is in. I think the Duke continues to cause chaos, to make the country look like it is in the worse shape it ever has been in, so he can come back and restore order. By restoring order and being in comparison to Angelo, the Duke becomes the hero to his people, therefore restoring his popularity that might have been slipping. This all comes together in the last act of the play. At the moment when the country is in the most chaos, the Duke writes a letter stating he is returning and will hear the grievances and disputes.

In 5.1, Duke reveals that he was the friar that gave everyone advice. He overhears all the cases and passes judgment for all involved. Angelo is forced to marry Marianna, and Lucio is forced to marry the whore who had his child. He reveals that Claudio is still alive, thanks to his work as the friar. With perfect timing, after revealing Claudio is still alive he proposes to his sister Isabella. He states “Give me your hand, and say you will be mine, / He is my brother too” (5.1, 486-487). The Duke by originally telling Isabella her brother was executed, and then revealing he was not, shows how cunning he really is. The last scene shows the Duke is always one step ahead of everyone and always has a plan to benefit his self in the end. I think the last scene emphasizes the Duke is always working to benefit his self first, and if anyone else happens to benefit that is just extra. At the end of the play the Duke saves the city from chaos, making him the hero king, and on top of all that gets the girl. All this does not come without sacrificing others, mainly Angelo. The Duke used and sacrificed Angelo, so he can claim the rewards.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


*I know this is late, but I have been having problems with power outages at my house for the past couple of days and this was as early as I could submit the whole thing. I'm really, really sorry*

Isabella's role in Measure for Measure is one that is tremendously complicated. I somewhat wonder what people in Shakespeare's England, which would have been almost entirely Protestant, would have thought of someone like Isabella, a devout Catholic and a nun, no less. Yet she's a lot more sympathetic than Angelo, the puritanical leader. The situation she is put in is not only unreasonable, but it's rather cruel.

Yet the play's ending disturbs me a lot more. Sure, the Duke saves her brother's life, but whether or not we, in modern time, agree with it, she clearly comes from a world view that values chastity tremendously, and she is expected to give this up because the Duke wants to marry her. This is a woman who went through such effort to maintain her chastity for the entire play, but doesn't seem to put up any fight when the Duke decides to take it away from her. She doesn't really answer him, which I suppose can leave the ending open ended. Yet, I can't help but be somewhat conflicted as to what it means. It doesn't seem to fit Isabella's personality that she'd be willing to give up her nunhood just to gain money and power, because she spent the whole play trying to maintain it even as her brother faces the death penalty. So perhaps she doesn't answer because she's displeased.

Yet, I can't help but have the striking theory that this is a side effect to the Protestant society that Shakespeare lives in. It's almost as if Shakespeare understands the fact that Isabella values chastity, but not why she values it. Her chastity isn't important to her merely because she's not married, but because, as a nun, she's devoted herself to her religion fully, more specifically, to God. It seems as if, with that in mind, she would have the same dilemma, sans the death penalty concern. Or perhaps Shakespeare understands this perfectly, and it is the Duke who doesn't understand. I wonder if Shakespeare's audience would have, or if this ending was seen as a happy ending?

I just can't envision this a happy life for Isabella. I mean, if she wanted to get married, she wouldn't have become a nun in the first place. Especially since, at the time, nuns took a vow of poverty, so clearly money was not the issue with her. And unless her robe is hiding some horrific deformity, which I wouldn't put passed Shakespeare, it seems to me that that the nunhood was a choice, and not something she was forced into. I wonder if the marriage proposal would be the same situation? It seems to me that it would not.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fear and the worth of a man

In Acts 2 and 3 of Measure for Measure, things start to “get real.” Angelo remains steadfast in his decision to have Claudio executed, until he decides he’s fallen in love with Isabella. Suddenly, he’s smitten and willing to give Claudio a break if Isabella will give up her virginity to him. Although these two acts have lots of not-so-subtle commentary on law and the morality of government, the most interesting line that stood out to me actually came from the first scene of Act 2, in which Angelo says we must not make a scarecrow of the law, that the law must be more than a vague threat looming over the heads of would-be criminals.

The idea of using the law to make an example of someone is something that I find very intriguing, and something I believe still holds relevance today. Public executions aren’t very common these days, but the practice of using unnecessary punishment to deter others from “sin” or crime is still here. The most prominent example that stayed with me as I read Angelo defend his decision is the practice of pursuing those guilty of digital piracy, a topic that holds great significance to me. Occasionally, we hear stories in the news of the RIAA picking an absurdly insignificant target to make an example of; suing grandmothers and teenagers for thousands of dollars for downloading a CD, and even suing a dead man’s children for songs he downloaded years before ( ). This practice is absurd, because it seems like the prosecuting party is less concerned with justice and more about making the victim a symbol of crime. In that case, and in the case of Measure for Measure, what purpose does the law serve, and what purpose do those in power serve if not to incite fear and to hold control over the majority?

One thing that surprised me is how quickly Claudio gives in to cowardice, pleading with his sister to trade her dignity for his life. Angelo has shown little sign in wavering on his decision to execute Claudio, and it seems that Claudio is facing the reality of the situation, and cracking under the pressure. It’s interesting think how one would react put in the same situation. Anyone can say that they would never trade their honor for their life, but when it really comes down to an axe to your head or however it was done in the old days, honor goes out the window and it’s understandable that Claudio panics. It’s been said that you see the essence of a man just before he dies, so if this is how Claudio will be remembered, what does that say about his character? He was a sympathetic character to me initially, but after Acts 2 and 3, I hesitate in feeling pity for him. He values his own life over his sister’s chastity, and it seems he would put her in harm’s way to save his own hide. Hopefully he will redeem himself before the end of the play.

The Role of Christianity in Measure for Measure

Through the first three acts of this play, the religious aspect of this play struck me as most interesting. Especially with adding the elements of Christianity from Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shows the flexibility in interpreting the certain religion.

In class we discussed the difference in moods between the Old and New Testament. Angelo, if he were to sync up with one of the two, would certainly be associated with the Old Testament. Strict, harsh, very law-abiding, merciless -- these are traits he exploits. However, the twist in the plot as well as the other characters present a religious analysis, exploring the different realms of Christianity, as opposed to a contrast between Christianity and Judaism.

When Angelo first comes down on Claudio, he justifies his ruling by the law, stating that his crime was inexcusable and his condemnation irreversible. Isabella, a practicing nun, deems Claudio's penalty as excusable, begging for mercy, justifying her point by saying that God would grant the same mercy. To me, it seems as if both characters are representing two different interpretations of Christianity, the strict one, and the merciful one. The more likable one to me is Isabella's case, to put God's law (mercy, forgiveness), and to view a dilemma sympatretical instead of Angelo's philosophy, which is to rule by the book, without questioning.

Of course, the plot twist with Angelo blackmailing Isabella for sex, may provide more implications for the topic of Christianity, but at this point it is hard to conclude exactly what.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ambiguous Morality

Measure for Measure fascinates me in regards to the sheer amount of ambiguous morality that can be found within the play. Shakespeare presents us with a world full of humorous prostitutes, well-meaning constables, corrupt and manipulative officials, and very few truly virtuous or villainous characters to choose from, thus leaving the audience with a conundrum—what, in the play, is truly considered moral? And what is not?

What is most intriguing is the diversity amongst the characters with whom we, the audience, are supposed to sympathize. Clearly Claudio and Juliet are meant to be highly sympathetic characters despite their current status of shamed wedlock and imprisonment—this could hardly be made any clearer, as it seems that nearly every other character we meet in the play is highly sympathetic to their plight, the whores and pimps just as much as Isabella and the Provost himself. Isabella herself is equally sympathetic, a virtuous and soon-to-be holy woman on a mission to plead for mercy on behalf of her brother, who, while he has sinned, still holds her love and forgiveness. On the other hand, there is an odd, humorous sort of sympathy attached to the prostitutes currently under siege as we are introduced to their lifestyle with a myriad of jokes, puns, and a sort of practicality that, while remaining basically (according to the play) immoral, nevertheless conveys far more sympathy to Claudio’s plight than Angelo, supposedly a paragon of virtue, ever expresses.

Possibly the only truly virtuous character in the entire play is Isabella—all the others indulge in one vice or another. Claudio and Juliet’s “sins” are made plain; the Duke is highly manipulative of his subjects and his laws; Lucio, while charming and engaging, frequents the brothels and whore-houses; Angelo is prideful, cold, and unmerciful, even before his lust causes him to stoop to bribery and threats in order to attain what he wishes. However, even with this apparent lack of virtue, the play as a whole does not come off, to me at least, as totally immoral. This impression is aided by the fact that Angelo’s offer of allowing Claudio to live in exchange for Isabella’s virginity, the only (so far) truly villainous action in the play, is immediately turned down, repeatedly and with force. Later, Isabella, Claudio, and the disguised Duke all denounce his actions unjust, immoral, and sinful—although Claudio does suffer from some delayed terror of death, he soon calms down and reconciles with his sister—thus clearly indicating, for possibly the first time in the entire play, what is moral, and what is not.

I expect that, as the rest of the play progresses, we will see even more morally ambiguous situations, but it seems to me that the primary issue of the play—how morality is defined—is what is drawing us to the conclusion more than anything. I wait to see at what conclusion we will find ourselves at the end—will we get a definitive answer? Is such a thing even possible? We shall see.

Liars, Pimps and Prostitutes

One of the aspects of Measure for Measure that I noticed while reading through the play so far is how much more corruption and sin/vice there is in this world compared with the world of The Merchant of Venice. In this play, anti-Semitism is non-existant (at least so far) and all the characters are presumably Christian, though many of their actions do not coincide with the beliefs of Christianity.

So far, the play has focused on the aftermath of Claudio's crime of impregnating a woman he was not married to. Although this is a frowned upon action during the time of the play, we are led to believe that it is a crime that usually goes unpunished. A case such as this, where both parties are consenting, would seem less likely to be enforced, but because of the recent change in power, is being punished with death. This, especially in today's world, seems like an extremely over the top punishment and is depicted as such by the characters in the play.

In the context of the play, I'm not necessarily against Claudio's death if that is what the law states, but we are shown during Act 2 that Angelo is not the most honest man either. He is willing to spare Claudio's life if Isabella agrees to sleep with him. I was unclear on a couple of things regarding this situation though. Angelo speaks at least twice of being in love with Isabella, but I was unclear if his request to sleep with her also involved them being married. Either way Angelo is being dishonest by essentially taking a bribe, but it would seem far worse to me if he only wanted to sleep with her, especially considering that's the very thing Claudio is being put to death for. At least Claudio and Juliet were consenting, even if Isabella agreed to sleep with Angelo it would be truly consenting because she would only be doing it to save her brother.

Also, despite how out of line Angelo's proposal seems, I was somewhat shocked to hear Isabella refuse, and even more shocked to hear Claudio ask her to essentially suck it up and take one for the team. So far, Isabella seems to be the only honest person in the play. Everyone else, it would seem, is either a liar, pimp, or prostitute. Even the Duke is parading around as a friar for his own benefit and sits back while Angelo rules with an iron fist. I'm not sure which is more unsettling, the fact that the Duke is pretending he is a friar or that the other friars are okay with this situation.

Shakesperian Comedy?

Having finished the play already, I cannot really say I consider Measure for Measure one of Shakespeare's comedies. Although it does end with multiple marriages, a motif associated with a comedy as opposed to death's association with tragedy, this play is filled with deception, disguise, governmental conspiracies, prostitution, and general abhorrent behavior.

Angelo refuses to marry his fiancée simply because she lost her dowry and brings him no financial gain. He condemns other Vienneses for their actions when he is quite obviously guilty of committing the same transgressions. He requests that Isabella surrender her virginity and honor to him in order to free her brother’s name. After sleeping with Mariana, under the premise that it is Isabella, he still condemns Claudio to death. Claudio asks his sister to give up her honor and her virginity in order for him to escape the penalty of death for impregnating his girlfriend before they are married. Throughout the play, many characters constantly attempt to accuse another for breaking the law in order for the government not to suspect them of being lawbreakers themselves.

The Duke appears to be a voice of reason for the action of the play— he allows Angelo to take over as ruler of Vienna so he disguise himself and watch the action from an outsider’s experience. Interestingly, he disguises himself as a monk, a man of God, who other characters will surely invest their trust in and tell him the truth. However, the Duke epitomizes disguise and deception in the play. He concocts the plan of tricking Angelo with the help of Mariana and Isabella and suggests they still execute Barnadine and send his head to Angelo in order to save Claudio. When the action of the play culminates in Act V, the Duke at first denies the pleas of Isabella and Mariana and sends them to jail even though he was disguised as a monk and knows they’re telling the truth. After reinstating himself to power, he forces everyone to marry— Angelo is not executed for his hypocritical transgressions but is ordered to marry Mariana, he asks Isabella to marry him, and orders Lucio to marry a whore.

Despite the appalling actions of the characters in the play, one of my biggest dilemmas with this play is actually the forced marriages. I usually consider Shakespeare to be a very affective romantic author, very often including romantic plots or subplots in his comedies. The only true love that appears to be present in this play is that of Claudio and Juliet, whose fate is ultimately unaddressed, while the other characters are forced by the law into their marriages.

The Duke's Character

This play is very interesting from the start. I'm very interested in the character of The Duke, however. Right from the beginning, The Duke is the first character we meet. Right off the bat The Duke is the first character to speak in this play. He starts by explaining that he is putting a new set of hands into power over the city of Vienna. He states that he is going to put Angelo in charge, with Escalus underneath him. He states that he can longer be in charge of the city of Vienna. "Since I am put to know that your own science exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice my strength can give you." The Duke is explaining that he can no longer give the city of Vienna what they need in the sense of being a ruler.
So far, I feel that the Duke is a weak character, obviously. Not only is he running away from his duties, but he was never a strong enough ruler to begin with. The Duke is clearly stating that he cannot be a ruler for the people of Vienna anymore because he is not strong enough. He states that he needs someone who will have a stronger control on the city; someone who can be a stricter ruler. He chooses Angelo because he feels that Angelo will rule with a strict fist.
Later on we find out that this is a test. He states that through all of this, we will see what happens to the "seemers". The "seemers" could either be Angelo, Escalus or the people of Vienna. I would like to read on and figure out more of the Duke.

The Facets of Angelo's Character

At the end of Act II, I’m left with an impression of Angelo as an extraordinarily complex character, yet also in many ways, a very predictable one. Our first dealings with Angelo come from the Duke’s descriptions of his character, and as we discussed on Friday, his virtuous nature. Angelo is renowned for his morals, and a strict interpretation of Vienna’s often unenforced laws regarding sexual conduct.

As his first decree as acting ruler, Angelo condemns Claudio for having sex with his betrothed and thus impregnating her, though most would consider this violation not nearly on the same level as acts committed by the men and women who run and frequent the brothels and sex trading industry. It would seem that Angelo is trying to make an example of Claudio, a man whose only real offense isn’t a very weighty one. Nevertheless, Claudio is sentenced to death for sleeping with the woman he loves, and Angelo’s reputation as an extremely righteous individual is strengthened. Though we are unsure of how Angelo came to be placed on this moral pedestal, we certainly know he’s there.

The turning point for Angelo’s personality occurs in the second act, in which Isabella, pleading for her brother’s life, makes quite an impression on the acting Duke. We’re given a very interesting scene in which Lucio pushes Isabella to be “warmer” in her interaction with Angelo. She begins her argument by agreeing with the Angelo’s actions and the strictness of the law (“O just but severe law!”), as Isabella as a character is also known for being pious. Though she’s begging for her brother’s life, she can’t help but feel disgust over his actions. Lucio, however, recognizes the fact that her coldness might not get anywhere with Angelo, and so he urges her to move closer and touch him while she pleads her case. She even goes as far as to bribe Angelo with prayer. Angelo, at first disinterested in Isabella, is intrigued, and it’s here that we can recognize his transformation. He listens to Isabella and tells her that he needs time to make a decision, and that she should return before noon tomorrow. After Isabella and Lucio leave, Angelo’s soliloquy confirms this change of opinion (“but it is I / That, lying by the violet of the sun, / Do, as the carrion does, not as the flower, / Corrupt with virtuous season”). Angelo goes on to admit his attraction to Isabella; that it is brought on not by any advance that she’s made, but by her own virtuous nature. In the face of true integrity, Angelo wants nothing more than to assert his dominance and destroy it. Though he considers himself above the common law-breakers, his humanity and sexual desire paint a much different picture.

Comedy in Act 2 Scene 1 of Measure For Measure

Act 2, scene 1, within Shakespeare's Measure For Measure at first baffled me but after a closer look actually humored me quite a bit. The scene opens with Angelo and Escalus discussing Claudio and his crime of impregnating Juliet before actually marrying her. Angelo and Escalus decide they they really have no choice but to execute Claudio for his crime. Angelo expresses his reasoning for this punishment at the start of the scene with the great quote: "We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape till custom make it their perch, and not their terror."

After Escalus and Angelo determine Claudio's fate, Elbow the Duke's constable enters to speak with Escalus and Angelo. Within Elbow's speech however he misuses words to the extent of making himself nearly incomprehensible. Elbow introduces the two men he is with as 'notorious benefactors' rather than malefactors which they actually are. As Elbow describes them his speech continues to mislead everyone in a comical way as he constantly contradicts himself by misusing word after word.

The introduction of Elbow and his interaction with Angelo and Escalus is Shakespeare's way of providing comic relief within the situation. As this comedic scene transpires, the reader loses sight of the fact that it has been decided upon that Claudio will be executed for his simple crime of impregnating Juliet before actually marrying her. It is not until the last ten lines or so of the scene that the reader's attention is brought back to Claudio and the fate that is awaiting him. This immediately provides a sobering effect as the tone of seriousness returns replacing the brief comedic interaction provided by Elbow and his banter with Escalus and Angelo.

Disguise, Deception, and Where the Values Lie

Now that we are up to Act III in Measure for Measure, the idea of disguise and deception is right at the forefront. Not only do Isabella and the Duke plan to trick Angelo into reconciling with Mariana by swapping out the little nun for the jilted lover, but the Duke himself is fooling everybody by disguising himself as a friar. Add in the skewed values of Angelo and the intense passion of Isabella and the question of what crosses the lines in society comes to mind. Friars, to the best of my knowledge, are very pious and devote their lives to the Lord. Nuns, as well, are clean and pure and love God. Isabella would rather see her brother Claudio die than lose her virginity to Angelo (which she sees as dying herself), showing what may seem today as an uber-devotion to the Church. Sacrificing family for purity is Isabella's highest value at this point. The Duke/friar, on the other hand, thinks nothing of tricking the Duke-regent as a way of saving Claudio. The Duke/friar wants what is best for his city but feels no need to sacrifice Claudio to get it. Not only does tricking people and lying go against the Church, but the Duke himself praised Angelo for his precision. It seems that the Duke values precision, but only to a degree, and will do anything to keep his city from being a truly frightening place.

This leads back to Angelo, who was so precise and strict in the beginning but is now willing to not only go back on his word but break his own law. And all for a woman. Women had no power in Shakespeare's world? I beg to differ. Isabella's decision determines who lives or dies in this play. Angelo certainly values the law but he'll change his mind if a pretty, sweet-talking lady turns up at his door. With Angelo's hypocrisy and the Duke's complacency, it's hard to tell who the better ruler is here. This is where the core of the play ends up: a lack of conviction. Isabella is a model of conviction and values, placing the Church higher than anything else. The Duke helps her for it and Angelo loves her for it. If anything, she would be the better ruler for the city, since the Duke is afraid of being too strict and Angelo is too swayed by the opposite sex. But of course, if this play had characters who weren't hypocritical and flawed, Claudio would have to die and the play would get into tragedy territory by the third act.

Disguise and deception are key in Shakespearean comedy not only because the common mix-up can be a funny plot device, but also because the reveal the values of the characters. Isabella will deceive Angelo so she can keep her virginity. The Duke disguises himself so he may learn what the people think of him (leading to some very humorous moments) and to help others. Angelo deceives his people by exchanging Claudio for Isabella's virginity. Shakespeare is showing that anyone will do anything to get what they want, sacrificing accepted societal values and exposing their own hidden ones. Some characters remain good (Isabella), some turn out to be bad (Angelo), and some become a bit of both (the Duke).

-Sarah Bras

how will the events of measure for measure unfold?

One of the first questions I have after reading acts 2 and 3 of Measure for Measure is whether or not Claudio will live, and if so, what will have to be done to achieve this. Will Isabella have to in fact sleep with Angelo? Or will they be able to get Angelo to think twice about his request? I am interested to see the further development of the request between Angelo and Isabella, and what will come of it when a decision is made. I feel like Isabella will not go through with Angelo's request to sleep with her, as was discussed when they plotted to bring Mariana in. I believe that something will get Angelo to reconsider his options, and hopefully free Claudio.

Also, I am wondering if we will see more of the Mariana that was spoken of, and if her presence or even the idea of her will have a great impact on the way these events unfold. Maybe seeing Mariana will get Angelo to realize his request is uncalled for and hypocritical, and Claudio will be permitted to live. I feel like in a lot of Shakespeare’s works, there is often attention drawn to hypocritical characters and their choices throughout the play, and I definitely see Angelo as a hypocritical character from my reading so far. Reminding him of his relationship with Mariana and all that had happened with them may be what Angelo needs in order to think about his practices, and may make him realize that he is condemning someone (Claudio) for something he himself has basically done as well.

I also have been wondering what particular reason the Duke has for going into hiding and putting Angelo in charge. He could be doing it as a test to see how Angelo handles power maybe, or he could be doing it to teach Angelo a lesson about power. Maybe he wants Angelo to see what it is like to be in power and wants him to learn how to behave correctly in a position of power. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the Duke has done this in order to make himself look better as well. If he can get Angelo to strictly enforce rules and look like an unsympathetic leader, maybe he thinks that he can come in and “save the day” from the vicious Angelo, so that way everyone will be thankful to have such a wonderful, gracious leader.

blurring our "clear boundries"

Early on in our discussion of this play the idea was brought up that Measure for Measure was a work defined by extremes. there appears to be a 'precise' division between these characters in terms of who they are and where they stand. Having read on, I feel it is safe to say that this place isn't as definite as it many initially seem. Between the black and white is something in the middle. This is the reality of the situation, the conflict, the guts; there's that grayness, where the experience comes from. Some examples
Angelo, a character defined by his strict judgments and hard rulings, finds himself bending, quickly falling head-over-heels for Claudio's sister. He addresses this weakness directly; fully aware that this recent dreamy light footedness could very well damage the image that he has worked so hard to create for himself (2.4 20-29). This situation might have been seen as romantic (a very stubborn ruler being so taken with the beauty of a young woman that he is willing to step on himself a bit and show some mercy) if Angelo didn't end up being Angelo at the end of it all. If he would have turned on a dime, realizing that he could not deny the one for whom he feels so warmly for, knowing how badly hurt that person would otherwise be, than we would still be dealing with the idea of extremes. By forcing young Isabella, who is less than half as step away from the nunnery, to decide between her own virginity and her brother's life, we get the idea that we as still dealing with the thick-headed wannabe-somebody, only with a bit more (or less) than we might have originally thought. Moved by feelings that are beyond his control, Angelo feels the need to control the situation as best he can to get what he wants.
Claudio finds himself in jail awaiting death for impregnating Juliet. My first impression of him was one of an upstanding guy; going to jail over the couple's happening, not denying his actions or naming someone else as the child's true papa. With execution day rapidly approaching, he seems to maintain that same kind of dignity, slowly accepting his fate with a bit of hope floating around him. When Isabella shows up, visually shaken, she confirms that there is no way he can distance himself from the inevitable. This lets the reader know what she is expecting of her brother. She does mention Angelo's deal, in a "what a creep, eh?" kind of way. Claudio agrees and then insists that she go through with the creepy deal (and getting a verbal whipping from the nun-in-training). After the Duke (friar) tells him that Angelo would never have gone through with such a deal, we see the reemergence of our first Claudio (if a bit dented now) who wants nothing more then to apologize to his dear sister now that he knows for sure he's screwed.
So what is being said here? Shakespeare is giving us the complications that make life explode. He is bringing us as readers down to earth after setting us up for a flat representation of our own reality.

How the Mighty Have Fallen

Angelo's character is first seen as "precise." He is the very definition of moral purity in human form. In his eyes the law is the law, and no extraordinary circumstances allow for an alteration of it. The law is not malleable, and no matter how virtuous one may be, any indiscretion is punished with the same severity as if they were sinners all along. The influence of power is often the strongest liquor, and one might argue that Christ himself would fall if he had been given a life long enough and a temptation strong enough. The Duke, who feels he has lost his people to the deadly sins and he himself cannot bring them back, hires Angelo to bring the sleeping laws awake. The Duke's challenge to Angelo is in part a test of strength and of virtue. In speaking to the Friar the Duke says, "Hence we shall see if power changes purpose, what our seemers be" (1.3.53-54). We discussed this line in class, and what its implications are. In my opinion, it has two meanings. Purpose may be seen as Angelo's intent, if a change in power does not change the man, it may change his justification of the law and of his actions. Purpose can also be seen as fate, if power changes one's fate. A "seemer" could be a reference to the divide where cloths are bound, held only by a feeble string, and when pulled at may unfurl. A "seemer" is also one's outward appearance, one's facade.
While Angelo acts as the embodiment of stringent law, Isabella (Claudio's sister) acts as the voice of reason, of fairness, and of a more human justice. At first, she attempts to play at Angelo's heartstrings. In reference to her brother, Isabella says to Angelo, "If he had been as you and you as he, you would have slipped like him, but he, like you, would not have been so stern" (2.2.66-68). She tries to put Angelo in Claudio's place, but her mistake is not knowing the character of Angelo, who believes that he himself would never give into unlawful temptation. The unfolding of the plot after act III will hopefully illuminate more about Angelo's character- to see if he does indeed fit the hypothetical situation that Isabella supposes in the aforementioned line. If Angelo is fooled by his former love, Isabella, and the Duke, his reaction to it will be his character’s tell.
I'm curious as to whether or not the audience is supposed to take Angelo's proposition to Isabella as his true intention. Is it as the Duke tells us, and Angelo is merely testing her character? Or is the Duke mistaken, and as Angelo himself says, "What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? Dost thou desire her foully for those things that make her good?" (2.3.77-79) Is Angelo tempted by her purity, her goodness, and her reason? Is he tempted to have her (in the carnal sense) or to test her?
Angelo's character is exposed as the Duke thought it might, going back to the line, "what our seemers be" in Act I when Isabella cries out, "Seeming, seeming!" (2.4.150) But is this Isabella being fooled by his proposition (a test, perhaps), or an indicator of his true character wilted by power?

Why Won't Isabella Just Sleep With Angelo?

While reading the first three acts of Measure for Measure what really jumped out at me was the character of Isabella. I found her to be a very intriguing and interesting character for many reasons. What really stood out to me was Isabella's blatant refusal of Angelo’s “suggestion”, which ultimately condemned her brother to death for a second time in this play. This refusal really got me wondering about to what extent was Isabella’s decision completely justified?

I think the question of whether or not Isabella’s decision is justified is quite a complicated question and I’m not sure I’ve figured it out for myself yet. The thought came across my mind at first, that maybe Isabella doesn’t really care so much for Claudio and that she (being a virtuous follower of god) thinks he deserves this punishment for this “sin”. But then I remembered that Isabella tries very hard to persuade Angelo to spare her brother, she says, “If he had been as you and you as he, / You would have slipped like him, but he, like you, / Would not have been so stern” (2.2 : 66-68). Here we see an example of Isabella trying to persuade Angelo by saying that if he committed the same offense, Claudio, if put in Angelo’s position, would have been merciful. Isabella’s constant plea for mercy for her brother is evidence that she indeed cares for her brother, but yet will not give “herself” to Angelo to save him. Isabella is so against giving her body to Angelo that she also says she would rather die instead of “… yield/ My body up to shame” (2.4: 103-104). Here is where I came to the realization that it wasn’t really a question of if Isabella cared for her brother, because she obviously does care for him to offer to die for him, but it’s the question of if Isabella cares about herself more. I think that by refusing to sleep with Angelo it is Isabella’s way of protecting her eternal soul. Isabella even says, “Better it were a brother died at once/ Than that a sister, by redeeming him, Should die for ever” (2.4 106-109). Here I think Isabella is placing a higher value on herself, or maybe just her eternal soul, than that of her brother’s life. So I guess based on this it comes down to the fact that Isabella is protecting her “soul” from eternal damnation, and I’m not sure if I can argue against this being wrong or selfish…especially considering the time period during which this takes place. I can see that in Isabella’s eyes a damned eternal soul is a fate worse than death so I therefore see her decision not to sleep with Angelo as somewhat justifiable. Finally, by contemplating the justification of Isabella’s decision it led me to think about whether or not her decision would have been different if this play was set during present day, where pre-marital sex is rampant if not the “norm”, and whether or not the setting/time period of the play is what solely allowed me to somewhat claim that her actions were justifiable?

The Unknown and Uncertain

While answering the question about how Claudio tries to convince Isabella to give herself up to Angelo, his powerful speech about death really stuck out. Claudio's first line "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where" reminded me of Hamlet's "to be or not to be"(3.1.118). Claudio is beginning to question the great uncertainty and unknown that surrounds death, just as Hamlet does. Does anyone really know what death is? What happens after death? Where do we go? No one lives to tell about it. Like Claudio says, it could be being suspended in nothingness or "to live in cold obstruction and rot"(3.1.119). It's as if reality has hit him that he may actually die. You don't realize the permanence and uncertainty of death until you're face to face with it.
These words are quite different from what he said in the beginning of Act 3 Scene 1 when talking to the Duke. It's as if he's gone back on his words. In the beginning he tells the Duke: "I've hope to live, and am prepared to die"(3.1.4) and "I find I seek to die, And seeking death, find life. Let it come on"(3.1.43-4). Claudio seems almost at peace with the idea of dying, but as the scene progresses, he's worried about the unknown. Will death mean blowing "with restless violence round about the pendent world"(3.1.125-6). At the end of his speech Claudio states "That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment / Can lay on nature is a paradise / To what we fear of death"(3.1.130-2). My take from this is that Claudio sees being old, living in prison, and/or being poor as better than having to face death and what happens after. Death has become unfathomable to Claudio, which I believe leads him to ask his sister to do the one sin that would be the worst for her to commit.
Lastly, it seems that Claudio is concerned with both what happens physically and while in purgatory. He talks about becoming a kneaded clod and the spirit bathing in fiery floods or "to reside in thrilling region of think-ribbed ice"(3.1.122-3). I think Claudio would feel as if he were a menace if he were killed. Obviously, Claudio wouldn't be dying gracefully and in his time, wouldn't be seen as deserving a place in heaven. What adds to this is that it seems that Claudio commits the ultimate selfish act by asking his sister to give her virginity to Angelo. In a way, I believe this would make Isabella the prisoner. Yes, Angelo would be free, but Isabella would pay the price and have to live with the sin she'd be committing. Isabella calls Angelo a "faithless coward" and ultimately tells him she'll pray that he dies. Claudio does seem like a coward...he's trying to escape death and his punishment by having someone else take the punishment. Claudio believes that Isabella's deed will be excused or inconsequential, when in fact, it won't be.
I think this all brings out Claudio's character more, and even leads Isabella's character to develop more. It's clear after their exchange that Isabella is determined and knows what she wants, much like Portia in Merchant of Venice. I'm interested to see how Claudio's character develops and how Isabella's plan to fool Angelo plays out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Angel and Devil in Angelo

After reading this section I am both interested and confused about Angelo’s feelings for Isabella. Is Angelo sincere with his feelings for Isabella? First off I wanted to take a look at his soliloquy at the end of Act II scene 2. What I found interesting was this quote, “dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? / dost thou desire her foully for those things/ that make her good? O, let her brother live! /” He is asking himself if he really does love her and if he wants to be with her. He continues to say, “What do I love her, / that I desire to hear her speak again, and feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?” He is asking himself why he is feeling this. Personally I do think he has feelings for Isabella, but what I find weird is when we find out that he was once engaged to a woman named, Mariana. Could it be that he is confusing his feelings of Mariana with his feelings for Isabella? Mariana and Angelo’s engagement was called off, so could this have some impact on his feelings for Isabella?
Something that was discussed in class about Angelo makes a connection to this act in the play as well. In class we spoke about the symbolic representation of Angelo’s name. It does have ANGELo written in it. And we spoke of how he could be the “angel of death.” I see this as a big connection. The angelic side of Angelo represents his feelings for Isabella or Mariana. Somewhere deep down inside of Angelo, he has real feelings of love and lust and of human companionship. Shouldn’t he feel some sorrow for Claudio? The devil part of his name stands out for his lack of compassion for Claudio. He wants to kill Claudio to prove a point to the town, when really this would show that he has no heart.
And the last thing about Angelo that I wanted to point out was the irony in him wanting Isabella to give up her chastity for him. Angelo is asking Isabella to give up her chastity, and have premarital sex with him. This is the exact crime that Claudio is being punished for if not worse. Claudio actually loves Juliet, as does Juliet to Claudio. But in Angelo’s circumstance, he wants Isabella to give up her chastity for a man she doesn’t even love. This is ironic because if Claudio wants to make a great impression on the town and show that he is in power and control, he shouldn’t be trying to commit the same act that he is supposedly proving his power for. This is going to make Angelo look like a fool in front of everyone and then no one will take him seriously. I definitely see that coming in the near future. I will have to look out for more angel/devil symbols in the rest of this play.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Sin of Sex to Save

The play brings up many questions of sexual intercourse and when it is deemed appropriate to take part in such a sensual act. In Measure for Measure, the reader almost immediately discovers that a sexual encounter between two unmarried people is a punishable crime. Lord Angelo reinforces the law that sexual involvement outside of marriage will result in execution. Obviously, the character of Claudio is accused of committing such a crime with Juliet, now pregnant with his baby.

Later in the play we learned that Claudio's sister, Isabella, pleads with Angelo to led her brother free. Lord Angelo proposes that Isabella give up her own body, have sex with another man, in order to save her brother. In my reading of this play, it seems as though the “man” that Angelo is hinting at is himself. Since he seems to like and be interested in Isabella, he wants Isabella to have sex with him. Ironically enough, the potential encounter between Angelo and Isabella would be the same crime that Claudio committed. Angelo's proposal is completely hypocritical of his own law enforcement!
Despite the hypocrisy of Angelo's suggestion, there is an even bigger issue to debate. This debate circulates around Isabella's choice to sin (and take part in sexual involvement outside of marriage), in order to save her brother, Claudio. Will she give up her virginity in order to save her own brother? Must she let go of her chastity so that a family member can live? In my opinion, this is unfair to ask someone, and of course, it would be a hard decision for anyone make if put in that situation. Sin for the life of a loved-one? OR... Have self pride and self worth, but loose the life of a family member?

Isabella is given complete power in this part of the play. Will her brother live? Or will he die? In the reading, we find out that she refuses Angelo's proposal. I believe that she decides against his suggestion because it is solely based on sexual power. She is not given any other way of saving her brother, besides a sexual favor, if you will. Some readers may see this is choice as being selfish or not being completely committed to the family; however, I see it as female, self empowerment. She is not going to just give up her body, and I believe it is a strong and powerful message to women. Of course Isabella's circumstances are highly dramatic, but I think that the message is important. Women are not just powerful through acts of sex, and you don't have to have sex in order to please people, or in Isabella's case, save others.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Does the Duke not approve of Angelo's ruling?

In act of one of Measure for Measure, the Duke sets up a test. One way one can perceive this test is a test of the people of Vienna. The Duke is possibly questioning how the people of Vienna will react to the new ruler, Angelo. The second test the Duke puts into place in on Angelo himself. I believe that the Duke is attempting to see if power corrupts rulers, and this is why we find out later on he plans on observing Angelo, disguised as a Friar, when he puts Angelo in charge.

In act one, The Duke speaks very highly of Angelo. When The Duke asks Angelo to rule Vienna in his absence the duke says:

Angelo,/ There is a kind of character in thy life,/That to the observer doth thy history/Fully unfold. Thyself and thy belongings/Are not thine own so proper as to waste/Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee./Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,/Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues/Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike/As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch'd/But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends/The smallest scruple of her excellence/But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines/Herself the glory of a creditor,/Both thanks and use. But I do bend my speech/To one that can my part in him advertise;/Hold therefore, Angelo:--/In our remove be thou at full ourself;/Mortality and mercy in Vienna/Live in thy tongue and heart: old Escalus,/Though first in question, is thy secondary./Take thy commission (1.1.26-47)”

In this speech we see how highly the Duke perceives Antonio to be. This is the main question of my blog. If the Duke thought so highly of Angelo, then why did he give Isabella the information that would allow her to ruin Angelo’s name and authority in act three? In act three, the Duke disguised as a friar, tells Isabella about a woman that Angelo was engaged to, and how he broke off the engagement when her dowry was lost due to a ship wreck. The Duke tells Isabella this information to set Angelo up, that way her brother will be freed and Angelo will have to marry this woman whom he already had sexual relations with. The question that comes to my mind is why would the Duke set up the man he left in charge of Vienna? Why would the Duke set up the man he spoke so highly of in act one of Measure for Measure?
The only possibility that came to my mind when thinking about these questions is the idea that possibly the Duke does not approve of the way Angelo has used his power. The Duke originally wanted Angelo to be a strict ruler, but maybe after hearing about how Angelo was using his authority to the fullest, he changed his mind on how he believe Vienna should be ruled.
I’m interested to see how this entire situation plays out in the remaining act of Measure for Measure. Does the Duke really turn on Angelo? And if he does, what were his motives?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Finding Happiness

As The Merchant of Venice comes to an end it is my first instinct to deem this a happy ending. It appears at first glance that everyone is reunited with their lover and Antonio’s ships and wealth is saved. Yet, I really question why everyone in the final act has a love interest to reconnect with except for Antonio. As highly as Bassanio talks about Antonio’s character and wealth, Antonio in the end is left to rejoice in his riches alone. It really makes me question the emphasis of money and how it does not always bring happiness upon people. Throughout the entire play the characters were so consumed with the bonds and material possessions they had or did not. At the same time, it was those same bonds and material possessions that caused everyone the most stress and ultimately risked people’s life and well-being. It caused husbands to give up their sacred rings and quarrel with their wives and a Jew to give up his assets and cease practice of his religion. It’s important to take note that everyone was just happy to have their loved ones by their side. As couples begin to depart Antonio is then left in the scene alone almost like a third wheel. To lay with his treasures does not compare to lying with someone who loves you. Michelle’s post emphasizes on the importance of friendships and relationships in the play. This final scene really exemplifies that. Money and wealth can only go but so far but it is the bond- not the certificate of debt but the attachment/connection amongst people, that in the end means the most.
Another thing about the final scene is there is no real mention or physical presence of Shylock. This also contributed into my early happy ending thought. Without Shylock’s physical presence it is almost forgotten that he exists. I wonder if that was done on purpose. I feel like if Shylock was brought into the scene the stark contrast between his demise and everyone’s happiness would cause audiences to cast him almost as a victim. As I evaluated everyone’s gladness I had to stop and really think about what was happening to the “villain”. Shylock was really stripped of his possessions but more importantly his livelihood. Again Shakespeare is showing that it is not worldly objects that bring contentment. I don’t even think Shylock even realized how much his property held no true value. When the Duke states Shylock’s initial punishment Shylock claims that they might as well take his life since it has no real meaning without his estate. Nevertheless, when Antonio offers a portion of Shylock’s estate back in exchange that he convert to Christianity the real meaning of life gets put into perspective not only for Shylock but for the audience as well. Again, Shakespeare is showing how unimportant physical things are. Shylock is left with no assets and his livelihood taken away while Antonio is left with all his ships intact, and the both men don’t quite seem as happy as everyone else.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

An exciting new resource for the study of English Drama

Dulwich College in London holds one of the world's most important archives of material relating to early modern theater. The founder of the college, Edward Alleyn, was one of the main movers-and-shakers in Shakespeare's theatrical world. His father-in-law, Phillip Henslowe, kept a diary of his business transactions that remains one of the prized documents in the field. Over 2000 pages of the archive (letters, deeds, leases, playbills, and much more) are now available online. Check it out:

Thursday, February 11, 2010


In the final act of The Merchant of Venice, a theme which stands out above the rest in my opinion) is that of loyalty. There are several situations among the characters in which the the principle of loyalty is present. Bassanio and Antonio provide great lengths of loyalty towards one another as friends. However, Portia and Nerissa are left questioning their loyalty towards their lovers when they fail to keep their oaths of wearing the rings which the women have given them. This strikes an interesting question of which relationship is most important to the characters in the play, the loyalty of a friend or the loyalty of a lover?!
When we consider the friendships in act five, Nerissa and Portia keep between themselves the flaw of their husbands, Bassanio and Gratiano, until they arrive back at Portia's home. The bond between the women is something which represents the loyalty both Nerissa and Portia have for one another as friends. In the same sense Bassanio and Antonio are truly loyal to one another, especially considering the idea that Antonio offered his flesh for his friend Bassanio. There isn't much more a friend can do that will represent the closeness and loyalty which is represented in the friendship of Bassanio and Antonio. The romantic relationships are not based on anything nearly as extreme as flesh.
When the men arrive Nerissa scolds Gratiano for his inability to keep his word, "What talk of you the posy or the value? You swore to me when I did give {it} you that you would wear it till your hour of death, and that it should lie with you in your grave (line 164)." This scene emphasizes Nerissa's anger towards Gratiano for breaking his promise. The idea that Gratiano no longer has the ring that Nerissa gave him, expresses the lack of trust in their romantic relationship with one another.
Portia does not hide in silence about her feelings towards Bassanio and the mistake he made by giving away his ring. I found this scene to be hilarious actually because Portia threatens Bassanio and basically tells him if you don't find the ring and bring it back then you are never allowed in my bed with me. This is clever of Shakespeare to allow the women to have power and threaten her husband when it comes to trust, love, lust. This romantic relationship is threatened because Bassanio thought it was alright to give away the ring if it was a worthy cause. Unfortunately the ring symbolizes his relationship with Portia as a whole and he broke the bond by parting with the ring.
These relationships are significant to the play because they explode in the closing scene of the play. All the events throughout the play including Portia's dilemma her father left her with, Nerissa's relationship with Gratiano, Portia meeting Bassanio, Bassanio and Antonio's friendship, and so on all lead to climax of the play. Shakespeare was able to generate several situations which came to intersection and it made the loyalty of relationships a main concentration of the play. As far as the question of which relationship is more important, I would have to say that Shakespeare juggles with both and forces the audience to consider that question individually. Do I think Shakespeare tried to make one relationship appear better than another? Perhaps, I simply think that Shakespeare is pointing out that people should be cautious in the the decisions that they make about the different relationships they are in and not allow someone to take them for a ride (take them for granted).

Shakespeare's Dimensions

Bassanio seems at first to be a cad, undeserving of all the affection his is shown. He puts his friend’s life at stake (Antonio), seeks marriage merely for financial gain (Portia) and treats his “enemy” with “unchristian” cruel disdain (Shylock). Certainly, with a plot’s normative he is destined for ill treatment as the good are rewarded with good fate and the bad punished for their behavior. One who does not examine his character carefully might be perplexed at this outcome, yet upon close reading it is plain that Bassanio is just as virtuous as Antonio.
Yes, Bassanio does allow Antonio to offer up a pound of his flesh to Shylock in order to fund his journey to woo Portia, but when Shylock attempts to cash in on Antonio’s debt with him Bassanio quickly offers up his own flesh. He professes, I must admit, a heart warming display of homosocial love. Bassanio says, “The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones, and all ere thou shalt lose for me one drop of blood” (4.1.111-112). Even though he seems to be doing this because it is truly his debt, I could easily see him doing the same if Antonio had staked his flesh for his own monetary needs.
It would be interesting to take a poll among men and women to see who would deem Bassanio’s act of offering up his wife in order to save his friend deplorable or commendable. My prediction is that men would see this as a proud moment, a moment of true friendship, to embody the (pardon the common colloquialism) “bro’s before ho’s” mantra. Women, I might suppose, would feel a slight twinge of hurt for Portia at the idea of forsaking their marriage for another man, especially with her present for the declaration.
I had considered Portia’s demanding of the ring she gave Bassanio (while in disguise as Balthasar) a cruel trick, but when reflecting upon his declaration, “My wife, and all the world are not with me esteemed above thy life and I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all here to this devil, to deliver you” (4.1.278-82) I understand her motives. To remove the lens of gender here, in assuming that this is a common female mentality- to trick- , I will place Portia in Bassanio’s place, and Bassanio in hers. I thoroughly believe they would have acted in the same spiteful way if roles were reversed. Portia may see that he is not actually offering to give her up, but instead attempting to define the love he has for Antonio, yet his mentioning this with her in ear shot does deserve a little retribution.
What has all of this to prove about Shakespeare’s characterization? He shows that, although seemingly cliché, appearances and first impressions are not all in seeing one’s character. Shakespeare cleverly gives his characters multi-faceted qualities and personalities and they are not, as most might think, simply basic archetypes. Shylock, while cruel and gluttonous, is also sentimental about his wife and his offensive (in the sense that he is preemptively protecting himself) traits obviously stem from a history of abuse because he is an “outsider.” Bassanio is not the money-grubbing schemer he is initially portrayed as, but sweet and caring. Portia, while rational and sweet, is also blinded by love and swayed with revenge. Shakespeare not only gives them dharmas, or purposeful roles, but well rounded personalities that speak closer to reality than other writers before him (ex: Spenser or Chaucer’s one dimensional archetypes).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Battle of the Sexes and Trust in Act four: The Merchant of Venice

I find it worth mentioning that in act four of Shakespeare's play the Merchant of Venice, the value of trust is questioned. Of course there is the on going suspense early on and throughout the play about whether or not Shylock will get his pound of flesh from Antonio. This situation later becomes brought to its climax when both Shylock and Antonio sit in front of the Duke and decide what the conditions are going to be, based on their agreement. This can be seen as the trust or lack of trust in business simply because these gentlemen were unable to come to an agreement outside of the court system. Shylock's trust was not enough for Antonio to keep is word, among other things.
Another example of trust in act four scene two, includes the incident when Portia is dressed in male attire and disguise to be involved with Antonio's judgement. The trust between Bassanio and Portia is broken because Bassanio (not knowing that Portia is in disguise of course), gives away the ring which is symbolic of the love between Portia and Bassanio.
After Nerissa finds out how easily Portia was able to get Bassanio's ring she decides to pull the same prank on her husband. This leads one to truly evaluate the significance marriage has in the lives of the characters and the ways in which trickery is used to test ones love. Unfortunately Portia and Bassanio were ultimately forced into somewhat of an arranged marriage, leaving many options of failure to present themselves. The fundamental values which most people seek for in a partner were never reached by Bassanio and Portia.
The second issue which has been repeated throughout the play and made it's debut in the fourth act is the problem of sex. It is interesting that Portia is disguised as a man in a court room where a woman has no voice or power. Even if we consider the point that Portia had to be disguised to hid her identity from Bassanio, we can still acknowledge the question, why is it that Portia was disguised as a man? Shakespeare tends to play with identity in his work and one can't help but think of the relevance it has to the plot and what message is being delivered simultaneously.
I think a reader can comment on the Merchant of Venice as a play which forces the reader/viewer to negotiate with themselves the social problems and struggles which Shakespeare appears to make camouflage to the plot. I find that mostly Portia, Bassanio, and Shylock bring attention to these themes.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Left Troubled by Shakespeare's Depiction of the "difference of [...] spirit" of Jews and Christians

I found the moment in Act Four, when the Duke says to Shylock, “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit, / I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it,” as a crucial clue for deciphering if the Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic or not. Throughout the play, Shakespeare has been playing with notions of “in” and “out” groups. Specifically, Shakespeare is interested in contrasting Jews and Christians, and in doing so I feel he mostly demonized Judaism while extolling the virtues of Christianity. Throughout the play, Shakespeare’s Christian characters display mercy, forgiveness, and generosity toward one another, virtues which are all arguably tenants of Christian theology. Up to this point in the play, I thought that perhaps Shakespeare was going to use this apparent virtue to ultimately demonstrate Christian hypocrisy, thereby eventually leading the play away from reading as anti-Semitic. I expected (or hoped) that Shakespeare was going to demonstrate that the Christians, although forgiving, merciful, and generous with one another, are quite hypocritical when dealing with the non-Christians (or outsiders), elucidated by their treatment of Shylock. To a large extent the Christians do appear hypocritical in the first three scenes of the play. Shylock is treated rather cruelly by them (mostly through insulting and taunting). However, I feel that in Scene Four Shakespeare portrays Shylock as the more ruthless and cruel character, making the Christians appear on the whole less villainous. For example, Shylock refuses to even hear Antonio’s pleas telling him, “I’ll have no speaking. I will have my bond”. Understandably, Shylock is upset by how he’s been treated by Antonio and other Christians, but I think Shakespeare depiction of him here makes him appear more as a ruthless villain than a victim. Do Antonio’s actions really warrant punishment by death? In Shylock’s speech in act 3.1 he seems to espouse “an eye for an eye” logic, claiming that he is following Christian example in his desire for vengeance. Shylock states that by “The villainy you teach me I will execute.” However his point is somewhat invalidated when the tables are turned and Shylock is put into the vulnerable position by Venetian Law. In contrast to Shylock’s refusal to pardon Antonio, the Christians offer Shylock immediate mercy “before thou ask it”. Yes, the forgiveness they offer him is stipulated—he’s expected to convert and give his money to his daughter’s husband, but this “bond” seems much less barbaric and extreme than Shylock’s desire to have a pound of Antonio’s flesh (thereby ensuring his death). Thus, I feel like this moment in the play, by degrading the validity of Shylock's previous (and very compelling) speech, also invalidates any redeeming qualities this play had that could have supported it as being not anti-Semitic. At the end of scene four, I think Shakespeare is leaving his readers with the impression that the Christians “are being the bigger person” by giving him relatively much more mercy than Shylock showed in his insistence to kill Antonio. I wonder if this could be an intentional move on Shakespeare’s part to refute and degrade Shylock’s speech on page 1147 in which he argues that Jews are just as human as Christians. Shylock's lack of sympathy and forgiveness does indeed make him seem “less human” than his Christian counterparts who spare his life. Yes, the Christians spit on Shylock and degrade him with racial slurs, but Shylock is depicted as being animalistic in his desire to carve the flesh off Antonio’s body by his own knife, something which does ostensibly take a lot more cold-heartedness and hatefulness than the aforementioned Christian offenses. It makes me sad to think this, but could Shakespeare be subversively implying such a notion about Jews?

I suppose much debate could be had over whether or not the stipulated agreement the Christians offer Shylock is actually merciful, generous, or forgiving. I personally thought, as a modern “liberal” reader, that the Christians acted terribly by imposing their religion and values on Shylock. At the end of scene four, I felt that Shylock was stripped of his identity and seemed terribly defeated and powerless, causing me to sympathize with him. However, I don’t think this is how Shakespeare’s Christian, anti-Semitic audience would have seen this, and I think that it is key to keep in my mind if we desire to know if this play was meant to be anti-Semitic or not. On the contrary, I think Shakespeare’s audience may have seen this stipulation of “forced conversion” as the ultimate act of mercy and love on the part of the Christians. Reason being, it may have been thought by the Elizabethan audience that the Christians not only spared Shylock’s mortal life, but gave him eternal life as well. Thoughts?