In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure there exists a paradox of the punishment of fornication only being able to be lifted by more fornication. I am referring to the deal that Angelo attempts to make with Isabella, her virginity for her brothers freedom. This issue, however, is reflective of a greater anxiety of the state invading personal spaces. From Claudio’s arrest to the loss of Mistress Overdone’s livelihood to the bargaining of Isabella’s virginity, the destructiveness of the state’s involvement with matters concerning sex as an anxiety of the play is evident.
Shakespeare makes the problematic nature of the state having such control in personal matters evident by writing the two representatives of government, Vincentio the duke and Angelo the deputy, as extremely hypocritical, meddlesome, and self-serving. Even when Angelo believes Isabella’s virginity to be yielded to him through fornication, he decides to still have Claudio killed for fornication. Vincentio disguises himself as a friar for the majority of the play. This makes an apt metaphor for the state using religion and morality as a guise to infiltrate and influence the public into staying under its control. He then uses his place to trick Angelo, to bring about his downfall. Both plans, the bed trick and the head trick, use the bodies of other people in their execution, without Vincentio having to ever invest his own body. Mariana is used sexually, and the body of the dead prisoner is also nothing more than technical necessity in Vincentio’s plan. When the people in power enforce such laws or negotiate with bodies, they do not hold themselves accountable for the same sins and do not see the people they use as actual people. Instead, the lower class like Mistress Overdone or people who simply do not hold offices can be prosecuted under the guise of enforcing morality without those in power having to live moral lives.
Isabella’s chastity brings into the discussion both a higher power above the law and a personal power that should be independent of the government and the ways in which the state still pervades through both of these spheres. Barbara Baines points out in her essay that Isabella’s dedication to the church and as a result dedicating her body to God should place her outside the conversation of body exchange (Baines 284). Yet her sex life is still intruded upon and negotiated. Chastity then becomes personally empowering as it is a way for the individual to maintain control over his or her own body. This is important to the female character whose body is so easily commodified. In the end however, the play can be interpreted in a way that Isabella loses her voice and agency as she is to marry the Duke, the enforcer of law and head of this particular state. Marcia Riefer discusses this loss of power and the troubling nature it adds to the end of the play as an example of “incompatibility of sexual subjugation with successful comic dramaturgy” (Riefer 158). Sexual subjugation is not only incompatible with successful comedy, but also with the happiness and independence of people.
Baines, Barbara J. “Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 30.2 (1990): 283-301.
Riefer, Marcia. “”Instruments of Some More Mightier Member”: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35.2 (1984): 157-69.