Measure for Measure in past critical analysis has been called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” along with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida (and others, arguably, including Merchant of Venice). I must have a problem, because Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure rank among those plays I have enjoyed reading the most. Maybe enjoyed is the wrong word, but they’re satisfyingly unsatisfying, twisting the rug out from you at just the right moment to not inspire tragedy, but revulsion—in my case, pained laughter (See: Hector’s utterly ignoble death at the hand(s) of Achilles and his many Myrmidons; the Duke’s seemingly undesired proposal to Isabella at the end of Measure for Measure).
So I turned to the literature. Is “problem” meant as a compliment (Spoiler: Nope)? If it isn’t, what’s the complaint over time? Is it Shakespeare’s artistry? His message, or lack thereof? Is it a plain old gut feeling of dislike?
Neil Rhodes, in “The Controversial Plot: Declamation and the Concept of the “Problem Play”” (published in The Modern Language Review in July 2000, pp 609-622) tells me one thing immediately: the term, “problem play,” is an artifact. “At some point in the 1980s it simply slipped away” (Rhodes 609). Rhodes go on to argue that the problem, common in fact through all of Shakespeare’s works, is ambiguity—the conclusions of the play suspend multiple meanings together, some of them very unsavory, often contradictory. He points back into Roman history, for the notion of controversiae, a “Roman schoolboy” (611) exercise in which you must compose an argument for the defense and the prosecution from the same evidence.
But who’s on trial, if Measure for Measure is the evidence? Not Claudio, not Angelo, though they may be on the page. Maybe the Duke. But very certainly Isabella. As Rhodes identifies, in Measure for Measure, there is a (made self-aware, by the characters) “proximity of virtue and vice” (618). He claims Mariana is the embodiment of that conflict (619), and maybe she is in a literal sense, but I’d disagree that she’s the most interesting—and point instead to the character who has given more trouble to the generations of scholars.
To support that claim, I have Geckle’s “Shakespeare’s Isabella” (Shakespeare Quarterly Spring 1971 pp 163-168). Before the term “problem play” had been retired, George Geckle stepped forward and declaimed the real problem was not Measure for Measure, or Isabella (who all the critics put on trial) but the critics themselves (165).
He cataloged their complaints (some excerpted here):
Charlotte Lennox (1753): “a mere Vixen in her virtue…”
Samuel Coleridge on Measure (around 1818): “the most painful… of his genuine works,” “Isabella… interests me the least”
Sir Arthur Quiller Couch (1922): “she is something rancid in her chastity”
That’s nearly 200 years of disdain. Geckle boils down the substance of those years to two points: 1) Nobody likes Isabella; and 2) Some even argue Shakespeare wrote her either inconsistently or unattractively, maybe to be tested and taught love by the Duke (165). He’s very unimpressed by that second claim. The first, he says, has a very simple reason: critics forget to read Isabella through the lens of Renaissance notions of chastity. He finds evidence from the New Testament to Spenser’s Fairie Queene and Milton (166). But the strongest he believes is written in the play itself, “The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good” (3.1.184), says the Duke. There, in fact, he says rests the verdict. There is why the Duke proposes to her (168). The Duke’s been schooled by her, not the other way around, in mercy.
If I combine the work of Geckle with the more-modern Rhodes, I’d be arguing the trial of Isabella was never on the page. Rather, Isabella is a character within a controversiae at the meta-level, for the hundreds of years of scholarship that have decried her chastity over her sisterly love. Measure for Measure is the evidence on which they have staged their moral arguments. But on page, the true Queen of Vice/Virtue is Mariana, says Rhodes. Geckle says, There’s no controversy to Isabella in Shakespeare’s text.
As much as I resent the notion of Isabella as Vixen in Virtue, or whatever else, I take issue with squashing her free from any doubt. She walks a thin line between virtue and vice in the play. What is the deeper vice, to let your brother die or give up your chastity? What’s the deeper virtue? Mariana compounds that problem: force another woman, although not ‘pure’ and virginal, to be compromised on your behalf? And the Duke—is it Isabella’s pure soul that desires to be a nun, and chaste, and married to God that elicits his proposal? Where does he see his affection reciprocated? Does he have to?
No. Although “problem play” may be retired, Measure for Measure is a problem. And I’ll continue to enjoy questioning it for exactly that reason.