Our Corporeal Boundaries

Pico della Mirandola’s seminal Renaissance discourse, Oration of the Dignity of Man, championed the sovereign individual: “Whatever seeds each man cultivates will grow to maturity and bear in him their own fruit”. At the center of the creative ladder, human beings can grasp the ‘fruits’ of God, but only once equipped with the ‘seeds’ of reason. The ascent of man requires deliberate cultivation, establishing ordering structures of religious and civic codes to abate the savage, anarchic alternative: the unfettered reign of nature. 

Nature, relating to the essence of a person, is pliable, the rough features curbed and favorable once cultivated. At the outset, Angelo is positioned as a firm, though strict, moral authority, but it is “With profits of the mind, study and fast” that he “doth rebate and blunt his natural edge” (1.4. 61-62). Nature is critically located in the material and corporeal, embodying the known and observable life force. Terrified of death, Claudio philosophizes that “the weariest and most loathed worldly life” that poor circumstances “Can lay on nature” is a “paradise” in contrast to the unknown in death (3. 1. 131, 133). Denying the possibility of heaven, his logic rejects the terms Christian salvation. Nature and the domain of God are thus structured in opposition.

Allowed unlimited license, man descends into beastiality. The path toward higher goods, i.e. God, requires the suppression of lascivious sexuality, a historic agent of human perversity and the defining similarity across species. Outside religious and civic codes there is no crime of fornication, for marriage is an acquiesced institution. In human society, there are thus limits imposed on nature and the spontaneous coupling of man and woman, even if for procreative means.  Facing his sentence, Claudio says, “Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die” (1. 2. 123- 125).  Claudio, like the rat, faces death for his “natural guiltiness,” for his crime is a consequence of instinct, not abnormality (2. 2. 140).

The instinctual nexus of human nature, sexuality, is a function of the body… and Measure for Measure is ripe with bodily imagery. A distinction is drawn between the heart, the seat of desire, and the head, the force of reason. Inflicted with a consuming sexual urge for Isabella,  Angelo bemoans, “in my heart the strong and swelling evil” that corrupts his moral stature (2. 4. 7-8).  “Swelling” has obvious sexual connotations and alludes to pumping blood, further reinforcing the omnipresent power of the body. Though nature can be refined, it is impossible to transcend the body. As the world of material action and consequence dominates in Measure for Measure, man is denied the divine ascent envisioned by della Mirandola. Human nature, circumscribed in the body, bounds us all definitively to the corporeal.

Pico Della Marinadola, “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” 1486, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Paul Oskar Kristeller, Ersnt Cassirer, and John Herman Randall, Jr. (n.p.: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 225.