The Lack of Virtue in “Character”

Shakespeare’s, Measure for Measure is a story that is defined by morality and men of questionable character. The word “character” appears four times throughout the script. Claudio uses the word once and the great Duke uses it three times as well. In this case there are two definitions for character from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that correspond with the Folger Shakespeare Library definitions found inside the book.


Character, in it’s noun form appears as, “ a member of a set of symbols used in writing or printing to represent linguistic elements, as individual speech sounds, syllables, or words; any of the simple elements of a written language, as a letter of an alphabet, or an ideogram,” according to the OED. The Duke utilizes the word in this format twice. First, in Act 4 Scene 2, as he attempts to persuade the provost to delay the beheading of Claudio and insist they instead send the head of prisoner Barnardine. Then later he mentions the word in regards to linguistics again in Scene 5 Act 1, as he addresses Angelo upon returning from his trip.


In both previously mentioned contexts there is no room for any interpretive possibilities to arise. Dan Flavin once said, “It is what it is, and it ain’t nothin’ else… Everything is clearly, openly, plainly delivered,” and that is exactly the case observed here. Although in Act 1 Scene 2, Claudio is able to use the word as part of his metaphor involving Juliet. Claudio says, “ the stealth of our most mutual entertainment/ with character too gross is writ on Juliet,” (I. II. 151-152). He refers to his lover’s pregnancy as the character/handwriting that is largely evident in identifying his crime of lechery. This metaphoric take opens up discussion regarding the social practices of the people of Vienna at this time. It begs one to question why a place that is heavily influenced by religion cannot even look past a basic lechery conviction to appreciate the miracle of life that has surfaced from a bad situation. Is it right that a child should be raised without a father simply because he/she was created in sin?


Character in it’s alternative context means, “ behavior; the sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a people, viewed as a homogeneous whole,” (OED). The Duke refers to Angelo as a man whose character has the opportunity to spread virtue to others if directed properly in Act 1 Scene 1. It appears rather ironic that the Duke would attempt to speak on someone else’s virtue, seeing that his actions display the conscious of a man without any. The Duke is man of great trickery and many lies. He lies about leaving, next he deceives everyone around him with his Friar disguise, and then he acts as if none of this has happened once he “returns” and seems “oblivious” to the situation at hand. Perhaps the Duke’s own questionable character is what allows for him to believe Angelo is a man of good morals.