Critics have 99 problems and disagreeing on Measure for Measure is definitely one of them.
As with Shakespeare’s other problem plays, scholars and casual readers alike have a problem identifying a consistent argument within Measure for Measure: it’s ambiguous and unpleasant topics are hard for some to swallow, had have led some to describe it as a cynical foray against themes of morality, the law, and Christianity.
Perhaps it is. After all, what about this play is optimistic? Can we call Isabella virtuous for refusing to surrender her virginity? Does the Duke make all right in the end by passing his judgments and delivering “justice?” Some say yes, some say no; the plays ambiguity does not seem to allow for a proper answer.
So, what did Shakespeare seek to do in writing such a play? Scholar Roy W. Battenhouse argues that we can better understand the answer to that question by examining the way in which Shakespeare modified his play from previous sources.
The story’s origin is from Cinthio’s The Story of Epitia, in which the character that would become Isabella does sleep with Angelo, yet Claudio is killed regardless. George Whetstone used Cinthio’s play as a source when writing Promos and Cassandra, which added comedic elements to the story that had previously only been a tragedy.
When Shakespeare adapted Whetstone’s work, his major additions to the story involve the Duke disguising himself as a Friar and all the events that transpire because of it. Battenhouse asks us to consider what Shakespeare’s additions mean in the context of this difficult story. He argues that the Duke’s role is to introduce the theme of Christian atonement, with the Duke as a figure of Christian goodness. Battenhouse views the Duke as aptly fulfilling the role of the atoner, and describes him knowing “how to mix levity and gravity, human indulgence and regal firmness” and also as being a “wonderful counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace.” He argues that through the Duke and his judgments at the end of the play, Shakespeare transforms the play into an affirmation of Christian doctrine.
What Battenhouse fails to address, however, is the ambiguous aspects of the Duke’s character. Throughout the play, we see instances when the Duke’s master-plan seems less about being a “shepherd” to his wayward people and more about affirming himself, such as in III.2 when the Duke feels the need to defend his honor to Lucio when he is disguised as a Friar. Lucio certainly seems to know some unsavory facts about the Duke’s own virtue, and the Duke’s self-serving actions lead us to question if he is truly the immaculate, altruistic character that Battenhouse claims him to be. And how about just claiming Isabella as his wife after she was seeking a life of chastity? Doesn’t seem like the mark of a godly prince. However, its ambiguity allows for varying readings.
So, has Battenhouse cracked the code and put all his scholarly opponents to bed? I’d say no, the addition of Christian themes doesn’t provide clarity, but rather just adds another element to be explored ambiguously.
Roy W. Battenhouse. Measure for Measure and the Christian Doctrine of Atonement. Modern Language Association. Web