In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare plays with themes of Puritanism. On a micro, specific level, Isabella is a Puritanical character. Her devout repudiation of sexual intercourse and her choice to remain chaste in the name of God to preserve her immortal soul, exemplifies Puritan values. However, the entire play can be seen as a discussion of the “Puritan campaign” because Shakespeare situates the characters in a world where “that sexual offenses like fornication, adultery, and bastardy [can be punished] by death” (Policing).
In reality, fornication, or premarital sex, was not a capital offense in Elizabethan times. It was also fairly common. As in the case of Claudio and Juliet, common law permitted a promise to marry followed by sexual intercourse to stand for a marriage. Many people, especially Puritans, disagreed with this idea, believing that sexual intercourse should only be permissible within the bonds of a marriage recognized by the church and public ceremony. However, the common law at least dictates that Claudio’s description of his relationship with Juliet, “she is fast my wife / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order” (I.2.146-148) should be recognized as a marriage. This is supported by the other characters’ outrage at Angelo’s sentencing. However, Angelo stands as a ruler with the power to override common law with his own will. And his will allows him to impose a law that does not recognize this informal bond.
However, even if Angelo deems the intercourse between Claudio and Juliet to be a criminal offense, fornication still wasn’t punishable by the death penalty! Sentences during Elizabethan times ranged from penance, to public humiliation, to flogging “well laid on till the blood come.” Death? Not on the menu. The fact that Shakespeare sets this play in a world where death is a fitting punishment for a crime of sexual misconduct magnifies the Puritan agenda. It contextualizes Isabella’s emphatic preservation of her sexual purity—this is a world of extreme consequences for compromising her purity. If Angelo is a quasi-Puritanical figure, or at least one that supports a Puritanical agenda in his law, it could also explain his attraction to Isabella’s purity. Her choice could model the sexual purity he is attempting to project during his reign. His own impure thoughts toward Isabella and his demand that she submit to him so that he can take possession of her sexually, however, demonstrate that his Puritan agenda is only a front. He is not pure himself.
Shakespeare, William, and A. R. Braunmuller. The Complete Works. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print. Measure for Measure. (p. 535).