Today ‘comedy’ can describe any number of productions or acts. We have a good understanding of satire, sarcasm and alternative comic methods and subversions. We are great fans of black humour and find almost anything funny if it is different and fresh. In Elizabethan times, however comedy was expected to adhere to particular traditional patterns. It usually comprised of a number of slightly manic, zany and indeed foolish characters juxtaposed with either the perfectly normal or humourless hard faced individuals who were usually mocked or taken advantage of by the other characters.
The plays were usually based around a light hearted comic plot in which confusions or complexities were resolved before the end. This almost standard formula was often used by William Shakespeare. The other conventional aspects of traditional comic plots (inherited from classical Rome) involved young lovers, represented by Claudio and Juliet in Measure for Measure, who would overcome adversity to eventually marry by the final act.
Although in this play Shakespeare, in Measure for Measure, deliberately uses elements of a traditional comic play but forces them together with a more serious insight into our notions of morality and indeed the questioning of law, justice and mercy. From the beginning of Measure for Measure we are shown a man who has been sentenced to death as he has got his girlfriend pregnant and has therefore had sex before wedlock. The situation of these two young lovers is used to raise questions concerning the justice system, law and morality. The Duke and Angelo, are juxtaposed to make each one seem more extreme.
In relation to this the Duke is portrayed as a man of loose morals, which is shown when he says to Angelo- ’twas my fault to give the people scope, ‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them For what they bid to do,’ -This shows the Duke to be not only an ambiguous character morally but also makes it appear to us that he is a slightly lazy, impassive character who feels that as he let the rules go lax he should not be the one to put them back into place as the people would lose the respect and admiration that they should have for him.
This method of thinking shows the Duke to be a man who wishes to please all and wants to stay in a good light with the towns folk. In contrast to the Duke’s loose ethics Angelo is shown from the start to be a moral and just man who wishes not only to keep the town well for the Duke but also to better it, upholding the law far more strictly. Then the Duke’s intention is to let Angelo do all of the dirty work while he, the Duke, hides disguised as a friar and can therefore follow Angelo’s progress. Angelo is portrayed as not a simple man but a man but one who thinks that if he uphold every law then things will be made better.
From the time we meet Angelo he seems alert and guided in that when he first comes in front of the Duke he says he is ‘always obedient to your grace’ thus showing his willingness to conform to regulation. Next Shakespeare gives us the character Claudio who is to be executed for having sex out of wedlock and causes us to question whether or not it is right that Claudio should be killed? He makes us think whether it is acceptable for him to be executed even though he has broken a serious law which must result in death.
He asks if we would prefer to let Claudio go free, thus breaking a clearly stated law, or have him killed which seems highly extreme. He puts us into a situation where in essence we must decide if we agree with the loose keeping of the law by the Duke or the strict upholding of every part of the law by Angelo. In doing this Shakespeare makes us question how important laws are and especially this one as it seem to be the most regularly broken one. This regular law breaking is shown as the comedy character Elbow arrests two bawds who he has caught. The bawd Pompey, who later is given a job in the prison, says that- If you head and hang all that offend that way but, For ten years together, you’ll be glad to give out a Commission for more heads. ‘ -Thus showing us that as the Duke has let all of these rules slip if all are punished who break them with death then there will be nobody left. This is a hugely cynical thing to suggest but it would appear to be true. In the scene we are also shown the three different methods of upholding the law and are again asked which one we prefer. The Duke’s method would be, we assume, to ignore it for the sake of reputation whereas Angelo upholds it precisely as it says in the law books.
Then we are shown the seemingly more sensible approach to upholding the law used by Escalus who uses them as a guideline on how to behave and therefore is less extremist when compared with the Duke and Angelo and in turn making us question why he has the least power. All of this that we have seen so far then is certainly not comic but slightly subversive in its discussion of morality despite having the basic premise of a comedy production. We have been asked to reflect upon how the keeping the law should be tackled and are then shown situations in which we must decide if what has been done is morally correct or if it is unacceptable.
It appears that we have been asked if we would use Angelo’s approach or the Dukes and then which we think is the most affective and just. As the play continues we are continually caused to consider how we would deal with a given situation and what method we would use to rectify it. A case such as this arises when Angelo, the supposed moralist, says that he will let Claudio go free if he can sleep with Isabella who is Claudio’s sister who also happens to be a nun in training.
The Friar, who is actually the Duke in disguise forms a ploy in which Angelo’s ex-fianci?? will take Isabella place so that Claudio will be saved and Isabella will still be able to become a nun. This comic twist in the story exposes huge moral faults in all of the characters involved. Firstly the sister of Claudio is a nun in training but apparently has no problem in trying to save her brother who has broken the law and therefore should be put to death. She places family bonds over the law forcing us to make our minds up as to whether she is right to do this.
She then agrees to go ahead with the plan that the Duke hatches and seems to have no problem with deceiving Angelo and asking an un-married woman to sleep with her ex-fianci?? who left her at the alter after Angelo found she had no dowry. She is supposed to be the character of the highest moral standing but she is then twisted to make us ask if what she is doing is acceptable. Angelo’s morals are then placed under scrutiny as he who is supposedly the keen upholder of the laws is suggesting to a nun that they should have sex out of marriage which is precisely the thing the he has been trying to deter people from doing.
This sudden turn in opinion not only makes us laugh due to his hypocrisy but also makes us question whether any character is this play has half decent morals and can uphold them. Next, though, the man that we feel great sympathy for due to the dire situation he is in, Claudio, pleads with his sister to sleep with Angelo when she returns saying that she will not and asks her to throw away her life as a nun making him, the object of our sympathy, seem as bad as Angelo in his moral reasoning. It shows him to be hugely selfish.
All of this is comical in its content and indeed makes us laugh due to its idiotic logic but when we find ourselves laughing at this situation we realise that this is not a laughing matter at all as the characters are playing with a man’s life and losing almost every piece of moral standing which at first we thought he had. There actions may appear comical but the consequences of these action are very serous indeed. In setting up this situation Shakespeare forces us to decide in what way we would deal with it and indeed if we have empathy with any one of the characters. We must decide as to what the morally right thing to do is.
Forcing this notion onto us but using comic means to do it makes us question what we are laughing at and whether laughing at this is an at all acceptable way to deal with it. We are left wondering as to what can possibly come next, what situation Shakespeare can set up. At this point the plot suddenly becomes more serious. When Angelo breaks his promise and asks for Claudio’ head the Duke and the Provost, who knows that the Duke is in disguise, hatch an even more morally dubious plan to send the head of Barnadine, who is a drunken resident of the prison instead of Claudio’s.
However, the Character Barnadine refuses to be executed as he cannot be bothered and has a hangover. This outlines his indifference to death as he treats it as something which is unimportant and requires effort so therefore is simply an annoyance. The Duke lets Barnadine go and uses the head of another prisoner. This grave scenario is openly mocked as Barnadine is juxtaposed with Claudio in that Barnadine has no fear nor respect for death and does not consider it to be an issue. He simply overlooks it and sees his cell as a room to sleep in.
In contrast the whole plan so far has been centred around Claudio not wanting to be killed but wishing to be free. When the two attitudes are juxtaposed it is a hugely important part of the play as the situation suddenly for that moment becomes laughable and a joke. As well as this this scene adds to our feeling that the Duke is an inadequate ruler and has hugely questionable ethics and priorities in life. Shakespeare make us ask why the Duke wants to help Claudio and if the Duke feels a strange kind of empathy with Claudio as he too has broken this law.
Now we are faced with deciphering who we feel is the morally sound person in the play and if any of the characters have honourable motivation behind what they are doing. A massively serious plot is going on before us but all we can do is laugh at the sheer idiocy of some of the characters. The plot has been grave in its implications but the things going on around it are almost always comic. The story becomes more macabre and the comedy becomes more of a release from the plot which forces us to think. So far the plot has been fairly serious but as act five begins everything changes.
As the Duke returns Isabella tells him of Angelo’s action but he, despite the fact that he knows it is true, accuses her of madness. This completely throws us as it is not what we expected. Thus showing the Duke’s burning ambition to please everybody and being another example of what he will do to get the crowd’s admiration. At this point wishes to seem fair in that he listens to Isabella’s rant and lets her speak thus making him seem just and as also as if he cares for all of his subjects in that he does not simply dismiss them.
After he has listened to her he says that ‘her madness has the oddest frame of sense. ‘ Thus accusing her of being mad and showing the crowd that the people in power are not corrupt. This is the first time we see the Duke doing something sensible and almost wise, altering our view that he is a foolish idiot and instead showing him to be a man who wishes to please all at any cost which may, however, be misconstrued as foolish. After Isabella has been arrested, Mariana, wearing a veil, comes onto the street and says that ‘I will not show my face until my husband bid me. This confuses the Duke so he questions her as to who is her husband. Now the plot is confused slightly but we soon realise that she is referring to Angelo who she slept with. This is an odd part of the play as it is not comedic or hugely serious but an unexpected lull before the climax of the play. As Mariana unveils herself she tells the truth as to who slept with Angelo but again the Duke with his warped sense of logic has her arrested. As Friar Lodowig, is called for the Duke leaves stage and Friar enters.
Lucio accuses him of bad mouthing the Duke and the Friar denies this saying ‘I love the Duke as I love myself’ which is another quick show of the Duke’s sadistic whit. As the Friar’s hood is taken off all around see that he is the Duke and are hugely shocked. We have no idea as to what will happen next and we wonder what the Duke will do. The Duke surprises everyone by sentencing Angelo to death because of his action with Isabella and Mariana. This is a strange twist as before the Duke was trying to support Angelo. Now we see that Shakespeare begins to introduce the farcical ideas of ending.
The Duke then tells Isabella to beg on Angelo’s behalf. Next the Duke on an apparent roll of insane logic tells Angelo to marry his ex-fianci?? Mariana whom he has slept with. Claudio is told to marry his pregnant lover. Then he, the Duke, orders Lucio to marry the Prostitute Kate and then to finish the play the Duke proposes to Isabella at which the plot finishes before she can reply. The whole act then is an apparent mockery of the usual comic endings of Shakespeare plays in which everything is sorted happily and the end usually involves marriage.
Shakespeare mocks his own ending by taking this to the extreme and marrying off everybody, but generally to the wrong person. The only person who appears to do well by this is Claudio who escapes death and is married to his lover which is presumably the best outcome he could have ever wished for. This is hugely ironic as the whole play is based around the grave situation that he is in and how severe the situation is for him but at the end of the play he goes free and is given exactly what he wants an incredibly is punished the least.
All of these things make us shake our heads at the foolishness of this conclusion and indeed the Duke’s perverse way in dealing with everybody. All of the other marriages seem to punish the people who either have good intentions, Mariana and Isabelle, and reward the crooks, the Duke and Angelo. Lucio, however, appears to be punished fairly in a very ironic way as he, the bawd, is forced to marry a woman of equal moral dubiousness and is therefore punished to spend a life time with the person that he used for sex. Ironically he will have a life time of sex with this person which strangely seems far less appealing after they are married.
The final straw in the Duke’s massive foolishness and naivety is the point where he assumes he can marry Isabella. Completely out of the blue this leaves us open mouthed as the curtain closes. Shakespeare in this play has taken a serious plot and turned it into a farcical mockery of all comedic plays. Then act five does not make the play a happier one. The skilled way in which Shakespeare forces a very serious issue of morality into a comedic frame not only make us laugh but does something more. It makes us question our views on morality and upholding the law without seeming deliberate or overt.