Competitions of Ethics

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has been popularly referred to as a “problematic play” because of its seemingly convoluted plot. The play has earned this title because the Claudio’s punishment does not fit his supposed crime, because Angelo’s offer to spare Claudio comes at a perverse and indecent trade, and because the way in which Claudio is finally saved is a kind of underhanded operation conceived by the Duke. In each of these three major points of the play, there is some subversion of the ethics understood by an audience. The questions are, then: why create this tension? With what ideas of morality or conduct is Shakespeare playing? How does the play resolve, if at all, the conflict between the ideas it thematically explores throughout its course?

Dr. M. W. Rowe, honorary researcher of philosophy, language, and communication at the University of East Anglia, proposes in his article “The Dissolution of Goodness: Measure for Measure and classical Ethics” that the ethical tension is inspired by the Duke as a social experiment. He argues that the Duke is testing classical, Aristotelian ethics, against Puritan conceptions of morality. To make his point, Dr. Rowe first explains the premise of both Aristotle’s and Puritans’ ethical principles. He then uses the text to explain how these two ideas are explored through namely Angelo.

According to Dr. Rowe, Aristotle in his text Nicomachean Ethics the importance of temperance and self-knowledge as two virtues of sophrosyne. The term sophrosyne has no direct translation to English because it is more of a concept than word and because its meaning has evolved with time. During Homer’s area, sophrosyne meant “being sane, rational, and sound of mind”. It later came to mean being “shrewd, wise in practical matters, and knowing what was in your own self-interest”. Finally, by Hesoid’s era, the central connotations of sophrosyne included “self-restraint, moderation, and not overstepping boundaries” (27). While the definition has sophrosyne has shifted with time, it has consistently maintained an idea of moderation. As such, it suggests that there is room for one to assess a situation and make a decision accordingly as opposed to a rigid set of rules regardless of circumstance.

By contrast, Puritan ideology has three main principles: “(i) Morality is not primarily a matter of this world or of the human point of view; it is transcendental and concerned with the point of view of God and the world to come; (ii) morality is about rules and prohibitions; (iii) one’s emotions, desires and inclinations frequently come into conflict with these rules” (35). Thus it is clear that because sophrosyne encourages personal judgment its flexibility directly opposes the strict rigors of Puritan ideals.

In the play, this dichotomy plays out most obviously in Angelo. His strict adherence to the law without a counter balance of equity or judgment yields injustice against Claudio. In this sense, it is almost as if he misuses the law and in doing harm against Claudio commits himself to sin. This result is ironic given his desire to purge Vienna of sin and indecency. The outcome of his actions thus suggest that puritan ideas and their rigorous execution might not yield the morality which they hope to cultivate. Instead, a more reasonable alternative that actually cultivates goodness would ironically be Aristotle’s ethical principals. This idea is ultimately supported by the Duke’s speech about death in which he fails to touch upon any Christian doctrine such as divine love, God, or otherwise. The failure to tie the play’s conclusion back to a theological base hints that perhaps the Duke, or maybe even Shakespeare, does not fully support the strain of zealous Puritanism which was becoming popular during Shakespeare’s time.