Measure for Measure is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays. The principal problem for the reader or member of the audience is that it offers a series of questions that remain largely unanswered. It does not inscribe a reliable formula against which we can properly judge the violation of moral norms or the subversion of political, religious or social absolutes. How should we judge Isabella's decision to preserve her own code of virginity and consequently to endanger her brother's life? Is Angelo merely a disagreeable individual or a symptom of a more widespread form of social and moral corruption? Is the Duke obliged to temporarily abdicate, disguise himself and engage with the murky practices of his fiefdom because autocratic monarchy is no longer a practical institution?
Like many of Shakespeare's more problematic dealings with the state and the individual the context is shifted safely to a time and a place that are not early-seventeenth-century London. However the problems of government and of administering the judicial system faced by the Duke bear a more than accidental resemblance to a number of ideas addressed by James I (before whom the play was first performed) in his tract Basilicon Down. The image of Vienna as a city-state threatened by criminality and incipient moral anarchy could just as easily apply to the expanding capital of the new trading and mercantile powerhouse of England. By examining the use of language in the play we will not immediately find solutions to the questions of whether Shakespeare is indulging a taste for dark comedy or offering a complex political allegory, but we will provide ourselves with a framework within which such questions can be more clearly addressed. First, some general observations about the language of the play.
Like all of Shakespeare's plays it consists of two primary linguistic patterns, blank verse and prose. There are different types and forms of prose style, but its principal distinction from verse is that it adheres to a single pattern of grammatical rules and conventions. Blank verse supplements these with a secondary pattern of iambic decasyllabic units. Before Milton's Paradise Lost, blank verse was regarded as a dramatic form which, because it lacked rhyme, did not fully qualify for use in non-dramatic verse. However, it offered a sufficient foregrounding of the poetic function to make the reader aware of a distinction between the poetic and the non-poetic. Three questions should be considered: What effect did Shakespeare intend to create by shifting the text between these two patterns? What effect do such changes have upon our perceptions of the speaker? What does this splitting of discourse tell us about contemporary attitudes to the functional as well as the formal distinction between poetic and non poetic language?
We can offer a number of fairly straightforward propositions. The distinction between blank verse and prose mirrors the distinction between the social patterns and the behavioural patterns of the characters. Isabella, Angelo, Claudio and the Duke communicate with one another and conduct their own introspective discourses mainly, though not entirely, in blank verse. Pompey, Mistress Overdone, Elbow, Lucio and Froth communicate mostly in prose—and do not generally reflect upon their own condition. When individuals from these two groups, representing the upper and lower ends of the social scale, communicate with one another, it is generally the case that the latter will shift into prose while the former will seem either incapable or unwilling to use blank verse. We might thus conclude that Shakespeare maintains the status of poetry as part of a complex series of sign systems—including dress, demeanour, names, occupations—that allow us to recognise strata within a particular social hierarchy. Poetry is culture; it is a linguistic form which disposes a collective identity upon its users. In sharing a particular code they can be seen as sharing a particular set of privileges, responsibilities, intellectual and moral concerns. Spoken, prose discourse does not even demand literacy. It is a means of exchange, dependent upon circumstance and contingency. Crucially it is not a discourse whose users seem capable of fully addressing; it is not something that they at once possess and inhabit, whereas the possessors and inhabitants of poetry are able to use the form as a means of contemplating the universals of their own and the human condition (see Isabella's reflections upon Angelo's proposition, II iv, 171-88; and Claudio's confrontation with death, III i, 115-30). But as such socio-cultura! distinctions become evident they are also threatened by attendant distinctions between patterns of commitment and behaviour. Angelo (ruler, aristocrat, blank verse) proves to be even more dangerously corrupt than Lucio (criminal, pimp, prose). Isabella (novitiate nun, embodiment of purity and piety, blank verse) finds herself submitted to the same conditions of bodily trading as Mistress Overdone (prostitute, victim of contingency and circumstance, prose).
To address this paradoxical relation between text and context we should return to Jakobson's models of the speech act. Throughout the play the contact-code functions are thrown into a state of continuous change and interplay. In the exchanges between Angelo and Isabella both seem to be addressing the same fundamental issues of life and justice (II ii and II iv), from, necessarily, different perspectives. But at the same time their adherance to the same pattern of compositional and performative rules compromises their claims upon separateness and individuality and reduces them to components of a single text. In Act II scene ii Isabella finds herself in the difficult position of, on the one hand, arguing with Angelo about the ethical and judicial validity of her brother's death sentence, and on the other listening to Lucio's asides which prompt her to play the emotional, indeed the physical card, against the movement of what is apparently a purely intellectual exchange.
Isabella We cannot weigh our brother with ourself:
Great men may jest with saints; 'tis wit in them, But in the less foul profanation.
Lucio (Aside to Isabella) Thou'rt i' th' right girl: more o'that.
Isabella That in the captain's but a choleric word Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.
Lucio (Aside to Isabella) Art advis'd o' that? More on't.
Angelo Why do you put these sayings upon me?
Isabella Because authority, though it err like others Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself That skins vice o' the top. Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.
Lucio speaks in unpoetic prose while the exchanges between Isabella and Angelo take place in blank verse. To return to Jakobson's model it could be claimed that the related functions of contact and code effectively determine the reception and outcome of the message. Lucio is in the peculiar position of being both commentator upon the code—the poetic disposition of her argument for mercy—and the manipulator of contact and context —he knows that as a woman she will have a different effect upon Angelo than would a man, and that Angelo's position of impersonal arbitrator will consequently be compromised.
From this tripartite exchange we might reexamine Shakespeare's deployment of the relation between language and the situation of the addresser-addressee. Consider the following statement by Robert Graves and Laura Riding on the political significance of regular poetry (1925).
Metre considered as a set pattern approved by convention will stand for the claims of society as at present organised: the variations on metre will stand for the claims of the individual (p. 24).
They are addressing the phenomenon of free verse, but their distinction between set pattern and variation might also apply to the blank verse and prose tensions of Measure for Measure.
Consider the relation between the linguistic (code) and phenomenological (referential) elements of the Isabella-Angelo exchange. In each instance the speaker attempts to situate his or her problem within a broader framework of moral, ethical and concrete sign systems. Isabella moves easily through the unusual paradigmatic correspondences between her brother's condition, saintliness and profanity, the otherwise separate imperatives of martial combat (captains, soldiers) and the physical and theological demands of choler and blasphemy; and she maintains this extravagant metaphoric pattern with her association of authority (moral and political) with the more contingent physical images of medicine, skin, bosom, heart. Angelo is prone to very similar metaphoric excursions, while Lucio on the other hand addresses only the actual circumstances of the utterance, rather than the linguistic power of the utterance itself. Consider the following:
Ay touch him; there's the vein Ay well said That's well said
O, to him to himench! He will relent:
Lucio allows his discourse to be determined by the circumstances of each utterance and in this sense he operates as the paradigm for the prose utterances and their speakers in the rest of the play. The prose sequences are driven by external context and to a large extent their signifying function depends upon the reader's understanding of this broader contextual meaning. The verse sequences are similarly prompted by circumstantial conditions but they also draw upon a much more elaborate pattern of signification. They create patterns of correspondence between the personal and immediate situation and broader abstract and universal themes that the speaker feels able to use either as strategies of persuasion or consolation. We should also note that Lucio's interventions create formal as well as thematic disturbances in the Isabella-Angelo exchange. If you listen to the passage as a whole you will find that Isabella is struggling to reinstall herself within the self-contained circuit of addresser-addressee and their shared poetic code. Here the Graves and Riding passage is particularly relevant because Isabella and Angelo attempt to address 'the claims of society' within the 'set pattern' of verse while Lucio's prose interjections are indeed prompted by 'the claims of the individual'. The question we should now ask is of whether there is an intrinsic element of poetic and non-poetic structures that effectively determines their situational context or the purpose of their message?
Jakobson again: 'Prose...is forwarded essentially by contiguity. Thus for poetry, metaphor, and for prose, metonymy is the line of least resistance'. Consider the Provost's attempt to persuade Pompey that he might be suited to the post of assistant executioner (IV ii, 6-15). Here the cohesive structure of the sequence focuses upon the axis of combination and continguity —'tomorrow morning', 'prison', 'executioner', 'helper', 'assist him', 'if not', 'your deliverance'. The prose sequence is effectively determined by the perceived pressures of external circumstances. Language becomes the lever by which individuals are prompted to respond directly to external circumstances. Compare this with Claudio's contemplation of death (III i, 116-26).
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendant world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
In this passage the temporal and spatial immediacy of death is transformed into a manic sequence of shifts between the empirical and the spiritual, the sensual and the intellectual—'rot', 'sensible', 'clod', 'spirit', 'floods', 'imprisoned', 'pendent world', 'incertain thoughts'. Claudio has projected himself, via the selective, paradigmatic axis, into a purely linguistic realm where what in the real, contingent world would remain separate concepts are suddenly thrust together. As Jakobson says: 'the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination'. In other words the speaker's use of the selective axis allows him to project into the contiguity axis of circumstance a wildly speculative, poetic pattern of causes and effects.
It would be wrong to base a general judgement upon a single comparison, but it will be seen in the following extracts that in the blank verse sequences the speaker attempts to situate his/her problem within a broader framework of images and concepts (the paradigmatic chain projected on to the syntagmatic and the effect foregrounded by the metrical pattern) while in the prose sequences structure will become a function of context and contingency (the progressive order of the syntagm will dominate the individual's use of both axes): the opening exchanges between Angelo and the Duke on the future of the city (I i, 4-84, blank verse) and the Duke's encounter with Lucio (III ii, 46-204, prose); the exchange between Claudio and Isabella on his fate and her decision (III i, 52-146, blank verse) and the Duke's suggestion to Isabella of a blackmail solution (III i, 181-283, prose).
The second comparison is particularly important because context here seems to determine code. Isabella and Claudio speculate on their individual perceptions of the meaning of choice, submission and death, while Isabella and the Duke address the more immediate practical solutions to the same problems. Note particularly how the use and effect of pronouns becomes a function of the poetic and prosaic codes. After Isabella addresses Claudio as 'O you beast/O faithless coward' she seems able to shift easily to a use of the first person that at once involves her exchange with her brother and her more introverted, lyrical contemplation of the existential condition of 'I': 'What should I think'.. .'Might but my bending down/ Reprieve thee from thy fate' (138-43). In the prose exchange with the Duke the use of the first person pronoun is more clearly limited by its direct dialogic function. When Isabella says 'I am now going to resolve him' (193), 'I have spirit to do any thing' (211) and 'I have heard of the lady' (218) she addresses the previous proposition or statement made by the Duke. Unlike the blank verse sequence each verb or noun phrase dependent upon the personal pronoun of the prose sequence is contrained by the circumstantial progress of the dialogue. She ('I') must respond to the details of the Duke's propositions and is never given the opportunity to enclose the 'I' within a more personal disquisition on her condition. This distinction should be kept in mind for our encounters with the early-seventeenth-century lyric poem, whose dialogic function must be specified by its internalised terms of reference rather than validated by an external context.
To summarise, there would seem to be intrinsic structural differences between the prose and verse passages of the play which correspond both with their contextual and purposive functions. In the verse sequences emphasis is shifted away from the dialogic function of language toward a more internalised, reflective realm. The contextual prompter to each verse utterance becomes the correlative, the point of comparison, from which the speaker will spin out complex metaphoric patterns, drawing more upon their own command of the linguistic system rather than submitting that system to the pressures and demands of the situation. In the prose passages, the syntagm, the combinative sequence is as Jakobson puts it, 'the line of least resistance'. The thematic focus and the internal structure of each passage become functions of a progressive causal relation between the events and imperatives of the context.
A troubling question persists: can it be argued that Shakespeare presents a natural, instinctive correspondence between individuals, their circumstances and their choice of linguistic pattern? Yes and no. Clearly the play shifts between formal mimesis and the self-referential conventions of literary art. A member of a contemporary audience, be they bawd or monarch, would recognise that the prose sequences are much closer to the formal structures of their own exchanges than are the complex prosodic and metaphoric designs of blank verse. The blank verse sequences, though often part of a dialogic exchange, bear a much closer resemblance to the contemporary discourse of the lyric: speaker, circumstances and events and objects mediated, become functions of a self-determined structure of metrical, syntactic and metaphoric patterns. Here mimesis begins to merge with allegory and symbolism. One of the functions of the contemporary lyric poem (consider Shakespeare's and Sidney's sonnets) was to situate the speaking presence as the focus for linguistic syntheses of otherwise disparate elements of existence and representation, the most common being the relation between the immediate and contingent and the universal and absolute. It is the relation between these, more specifically the conflict between human instinct and the demands of circumstance and the overarching transcendent concepts of order, law and justice, that constitute the plot of Measure for Measure. And the characters whose function and identity are shaped by their use of verse before prose are those whose social and judicial positions oblige them to effectively control the balance between these two types of existential condition. Shakespeare seems to claim that culture, high art, writing, the imaginative engagement with and command of the discourse correspond with power, privilege and responsibility. But if this is his mimetic-symbolic schema its attendant message is disturbing. The blank versifiers, although in admirable command of the medium of representation, are no more able to control their own baser instincts or the broader situation that their language mediates than are their counterparts whose language reflects the combinative, contingent patterns of their lives. So if we were to argue that Measure for Measure addresses itself primarily to the circumstances and responsibilities of the inhabitants and rulers of London in 1604, we must also concede that it offers an equally troubling challenge to the linguistic and cultural codes within which these individuals situate themselves. How might we reconcile the two potentially conflicting purposes of this address to linguistics and politics?
During the 1920s and 1930s a group of Soviet linguists and critics attempted to develop an interpretive model based on the linguistics of history and ideology. The work of Mikhail Bakhtin focuses mainly on the nineteenth-century novel, but his contention that literary texts embody but do not directly reflect the social tensions and interactions of their period corresponds closely with the issues raised by Measure for Measure. In his Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics (1973), Bakhtin introduced a notion of 'metalinguistics', based not merely upon the location of a text as an instance of a broader system of linguistic and cultural rules but upon the study of a dynamics of interaction between two or more voices in the same text, such an interaction often occurring in the single, apparently third person, voice of the novel's narrator. In his later work, Rabelais and His World (1968) he located the primary source of such interactions in the relation between the 'carnivalesque', the festivities, practices and locutionary forms which constitute the unrecorded substance of pre-twentieth-century sub-culture, and the rules and conventions of the cultural, social hierarchy, otherwise known as high art. Texts which allow the free play of the former (i.e. Rabelais) to influence or even subvert the orderly protocols of the latter are, he argues, indicative of those points in history where changes in what Marxists call the base of society (its fundamental economic and political structure) begin to cause disturbances in its superstructure (the social norms, the judiciary, high art etc.). This model would seem to provide us with an intriguing interpretive framework for the linguistic, cultural and political tensions of Measure for Measure. We might argue that the Duke is the dramatic counterpart for the authorial presence of the novel (a model perhaps for Prospero in The Tempest). For much of the play he is literally and linguistically in disguise; he mediates between the different levels of the social and cultural hierarchy, and in doing so he displays an impressive ability to shift between the two patterns of linguistic discourse that define and prescribe the roles of the characters (at one point he even adopts the rhymed couplet). The political message to James I that mediation rather than autocracy is the role demanded by contemporary conditions seems clear enough, but the play's engagement with broader issues of signification and representation is even more intriguing. The Duke could also be seen to represent both the figure of the poet and the personae constructed by the poet. Unlike the other characters, he is able to enclose himself within the self-determined structure of the poetic function yet release his speaking presence from these constraints to allow his and his addressee's discourses to be driven by the pressures and imperatives of contingency and the pragmatics of the real world.
As Bakhtin observed, it is wrong to treat language and its generic distinctions as a thing, an object, rather than as a medium for social and personal interaction. When we analyse and document different linguistic formulae we run the risk of not paying sufficient attention to the elements that actually prompt and determine the structure of each utterance. In more recent debates on linguistics, Michael Halliday (1973, 1978) has taken against the transformational-generative systems of Chomsky and others and argued that what is intrinsic to a particular sentence or broader textual parole can never remain immune from its immediate or social and political context. In short, he argues that the langue is by no means a purely linguistic system, that the way in which it is drawn upon and deployed becomes a function of the situation of the utterance and the social/ political status of the addresser and addressee. What Shakespeare provides us with is a fictive model of the actual circumstances in which we distinguish between poetic and non-poetic language. In the blank verse sequences we might regard each speech act as the dramatic counterpart to an isolated non-dramatic lyric, in the sense that we must attend both to the known and inferred circumstances in which the utterance takes place and to the rules and conventions of verse that each statement shares with others. In the prose sequences our attention will shift toward the non-textual circumstances that determine each statement and away from their intrinsic formal and stylistic characteristics. In both instances we find that structure (metre or non-metre, the foregrounding of the syntagmatic or the paradigmatic axis) corresponds with context and genre. The question we will have to address as this chronological study proceeds is whether these correspondences are determined by contemporary perceptions of poetic and non-poetic discourses or whether they reflect an instinctive, natural correspondence between language and experience. For the moment let us consider how our reading of Measure for Measure can influence our understanding of the non-dramatic poetry of the early seventeenth century.
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