The brief exchange between Pompey the clown and Abhorson the hangman, though primarily intended for comic relief, actually speaks to the serious issues that permeate Measure for Measure. Shakespeare uses their argument over Abhorson’s claim that hanging is a “mystery” to mirror the central issue of Angelo’s presumed stance as a moral authority figure.
Abhorson insists that his occupation, hangman, is a “mystery” (Shakespeare 4.2.27), thus introducing the word in its archaic sense of “Craft, art; a trade, profession, calling” (“mystery, n.2”). In other words, Abhorson claims to work an exclusive and thus economically valuable occupation.
Pompey, however, quickly questions the validity of Abhorson’s claim of “mystery” for his field by associating it with wordplay and logical fallacy. First, Pompey shows the sham in calling something a “mystery” by saying that he himself is a member of a “mystery”: “Painting, sir, I have heard say, is a mystery, and your whores, sir, being members of my occupation, using painting, do prove my occupation a mystery” (Shakespeare 4.2.34-6). By using equivocation to equate “painting,” the fine art, with “painting, the application of cosmetics, Pompey conflates the high with the low, the exclusive with the common in the name of “mystery”.
Abhorson’s reply to Pompey’s insistence that hanging is not a “mystery” complicates his stance further. His “proof”, that “Every true man’s apparel fits your thief,” has no literal connection to hangmen at all (4.2.41). There are, however, various ways to interpret its symbolism. For one, Abhorson might be saying that an honest man’s appearance ‘fits’ a thief to make him look honest, as Pompey’s posturing as an executioner makes him look like something better than a criminal. But this doesn’t do anything to prove that he himself is a craftsman—it merely demeans Pompey as a fraud.
Pompey’s response to Abhorson makes even less sense: “If it be too little for your thief, your true man thinks it big enough. If it be too big for your thief, your thief thinks it little enough; so every true man’s apparel fits your thief” (4.2.42-5). This passage forces the reader to attempt numerous interpretations by giving “little” and “big” any number of different figurative or literal meanings (“little” could mean physically small, little in economic value, little in symbolic value; thief could mean literal thief or the executioner; etc.). Furthermore, it seems that modern critics even disagree whether Abhorson or Pompey says this passage. The first folio version attributes it to Pompey, but many of the online versions attribute it to Abhorson, possibly in the belief that the passage’s incoherence was a mistake on Shakespeare or an editor’s part.
Ultimately, I cannot find an interpretation that explains this passage as logically sound. This leads me to the conclusion that Shakespeare here uses what strikes first as simply comic relief to develop more serious themes of the play. Abhorson’s assertion of “mystery,” of a higher, elite class in both an economic and moral sense, rings as clearly false. He is, in other words, posturing as something greater than he actually is in the same way that Angelo postures as a moral authoritarian figure. Pompey’s use of equivocation to expose Abhorson’s pretension mirrors the doubling that the duke uses to expose Angelo as a fraud. Where Pompey substitutes the painter for the whore and the “honest man” for the “thief”, the Duke (doubling himself as a Friar) substitutes of Mariana for Isabella and Barnardine’s head for Claudio’s.
Neither Pompey nor the Duke, however, comes out unscathed. This passage highlights that it is precisely through posturing that both Pompey and the Duke expose the posturing of Abhorson and Angelo. Pompey entangles himself in the illogical confusion of the scene which emphasize that he is no higher in social standing than Abhorson. Similarly, the Duke commits numerous problematic actions throughout the play that call into question his presumed moral superiority over Angelo. In this way, the scene presents a more literal conception of “mystery” as one of the central ‘problems’ of Shakespeare’s play.
Shakespeare, William. Measure For Measure. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. London: Penguin Books, 2002. 532-564. Print.
“mystery, n.2.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 12 August 2015.