Louise Schleiner, in her essay “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure”, takes a closer look at the play’s Duke Vincentio. In doing so, Schleiner examines biblical parallels and allusions within the play and their implications on the characterization of the duke, as well as the insinuations about Shakespeare’s society that stem from the duke’s character.
Central to Schleiner’s argument are certain New Testament parables. She especially emphasizes the wicked vineyard tenants, the wicked steward, and the parable of the talents, among a select few others, which encapsulate a group the author delegates as “the absentee master parables” (Schleiner 228). These parables, Shleiner claims, parallel the actions of the duke. In all of these stories, as well as in the duke’s case, the master gives a certain task or responsibility to some subject in order to test them, with the master promising to return at some point and evaluate his subject. Schleiner notes that although the testing of Angelo is the most obvious, the duke is testing other characters as well by observing their actions while he is in disguise. At first the duke is simply content to sit back and watch the characters, waiting to see if they give in to the impulses for which he is testing them. For example, he waits until Angelo gives in to his repressed sexuality by making his demands of Isabella, and waits until it is almost too late to save Claudio from his greed of his holding out for a better dowry. At this point, the duke sees that his subjects have failed their testing, so he must intervene.
Schleiner asserts that the duke is playing god, especially within the second half of the play. Vincentio is already in the position of the talent-lender, essentially the god figure within that parable, but in the latter half of the play the duke also intervenes with his bed trick. In doing so, Schleiner argues that he is attempting to bring “new life” to his subjects by saving them from their own self-destruction. The author argues that much of the play consists of the duke battling the natural ways of his subjects with his New Testament morals.
The fact that Shakespeare depicts a ruler as trying to imitate god is also notable because of what was happening in England at this time. The play was produced for the court of King James, who just a year earlier had written a book in which he called the possessor of the kingship a “little god” (Schleiner 233). Schleiner believes that having the duke, with his strong morals and imitation of god, save the day and essentially act as a model ruler, might have been perceived by some at the time as ironic, because James’ kingship was not shaping up to be a model one. Essentially, Shakespeare is portraying Vincentio as the ruler that James idealized, but could not become.
Vincentio, in the eyes of Schleiner, inhabits a god-like position of having New Testament morality and testing his subjects. In using this morality to govern with mercy and moderateness, Vincentio is able to take on the role of King James’ idealized king; an irony that Schleiner believes would have been picked up on in Shakespeare’s time.
Schleiner, Louise. “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure.” PMLA 97.2
(1982): 227-36. Print.