Processing Measure for Measure as a twentieth century female is terrible. It is uncomfortable to say the least, to watch a pious virginal woman be forced to choose between her brother’s life and her agency over her body. Not only does Angelo want Isabella’s, body and virginity, but he also wants her consent. He wants Isabella to want to have sex with him—freeing him of guilt perhaps? And so, Isabella, in quiet the bind, decides to manipulate the situation and the comedic trick titled ‘The Bed-Trick’ by A.D. Nuttall, in his article for the Shakespeare Survey, occurs.
What is this comedic trick? It seems very ‘Shakespearean’ in its ability to create a comic knot that must at some point come untied. Why is it so uncomfortable then for a modern female reader? I see Isabella as allowing Mariana to have sex with Angelo and ultimately tricking him into finalizing his marriage with Mariana deeply unsettling. Nuttall refers to Isabella in this instance as a bawd, or a woman in charge of a brothel—going against her virtuous ways by placing another in her stead.
Angelo is the true villain in the play, and however satisfying it is to know that he is being cheated and tricked because of, essentially, his awfulness, it comes at the price of Mariana gluing her life to his. Nuttal explains that Isabella “welcomed [the] suggestion”(51). Angelo, as the villain, is assumed to be awful. Forcing Isabella to sacrifice her virginity or her brother’s life is despicable, but honestly unsurprising of an evil power hungry villain so ingrained in a patriarchal society. What is “essentially and systematically disquieting” (54), as illuminated by Nuttal is the addition of Mariana to the mix. He believes the ending to be a “eucatastrophe” (54), meaning there is a sudden and favorable resolution leading to a happy ending. But it is not happy.
For the ending to be happy and joyous, that must mean that for Mariana all that matters is solidifying her marriage to a man who dropped her when her fortune shrank. I was excited for her! Thinking to myself, wow good for her securing her future. Nuttal elucidates this idea that it “makes the audience smile” (54), against all odds in spite of understanding how terrible the situation is in general.
The rest of his article focuses on the legality of differing types of marriages and what promises mean what and what is allowed and who thinks so. People can declare and undeclare themselves married—or everyone thinks they are, or no one thinks they are. Marriage is upheld as a “centre of high mystery.” (56) We assume that the characters in the play understand the convoluted laws surrounding marriage at this time. Nuttal’s article sheds some light on why I would feel uncomfortable at this trick of Shakespeare’s. In not understanding the rules of marriage in this time fully, in discomfort at the Isabella’s consent for Mariana to sleep with Angelo, to the odd joy I felt at Mariana’s success—Measure for Measure through the ‘bed-trick’ played with my emotions as a 20th century woman.
Source: Nuttall, A. D. “Measure for Measure: The Bed-Trick.” Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 28 (1975): 51-54.