When Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in approximately 1604, society was very sexist towards females and men were seen as the stronger sex, however Shakespeare included lots of strong female characters in his plays such as Portia in ‘Mercent of Venice’ and Lady Macbeth in ‘Macbeth’, he was aware that his plays wouldn’t change society and that unlimitedly, women are regarded as subservient to men. They were not allowed to vote, state their real opinions, go to university and they were never formally educated; their only expected roles in life were to run the household and provide children.
Consequently, many men regarded their wives and daughters as possessions who were expected to abide by their husbands and fathers no matter what. When it came down to relationships with the opposite sex, virginity was regarded as a virtue and a prize. Men expected their wives to be pure in preparation for marriage and the women that had ‘succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh’ before they were married were considered ruined women. Men however were encouraged to learn the arts of seduction and some men of the higher class were sent to Italy to learn the art.
In the society of Measure for Measure, men clearly use and abuse women. One of the main characters Angelo is placed in charge of the city in Vienna by Duke Vincentio. The Duke had been quite an easy going ruler who feels that it is time to clean up the Viennese society and administer a greater sense of honour. He chooses Angelo because of the strong characteristics and principles that he has make him stand out for being the perfect person to do so.
Despite his name being a play on the word ‘angel’, he absurdly proves to be the villain of the play and along with several other male figures, he uses not only his gender but also his position of power, to exploit several members of the ‘weaker’ sex. When Angelo takes authority as ruler in the Duke’s absence he immediately wishes to make a mark. Unbeknown to him, the Duke has disguised himself as a Friar and has returned to Vienna to observe how Angelo administers ascendancy. Angelo initially comes forth as beyond criticism and determined to rule with an iron fist.
When he discovers that a nobleman called Claudio has slept with his partner impregnated her, he orders Claudio be executed as an example to the citizens of Vienna, that such immorality will not be tolerated. The nobleman Claudio is introduced to us in Act 1 Scene 2. As he is being led away to prison, his friend Lucio asks the meaning of ‘this restraint’ and queries as to weather or not it is because of ‘lechery’. Claudio agrees that to a degree, his crime is one of being too lenient in terms of sexual activity and we recognize that this is a society where men and women are expected to show self-control before marriage.
Claudio talks about his lover, Julietta with a certain degree of dominance; we learn he had ‘possession’ of her bed but in his justification it was ‘upon a true contract’ and it seemed the liaison was consensual. But also ‘upon a true contract’ could also mean that Julietta has donated herself to the dominant member of the relationship. Also this statement makes the ‘relationship’ appear to be almost a deal or an agreement – in which has been made between the two characters. He also argues that they were as good as engaged but were waiting for the right moment to reveal the news to her family.
Their sexual relationship is regarded by Claudio as ‘mutual entertainment’ and we realise that both can be held responsible for their crime however Julietta is now pregnant and they cannot hide their actions from others who can see the ‘shame’ of their union. In addition, the word mainly focused upon, is ‘possession’. This word once again reflects the sexism surrounding this era; in that the male is the dominant and most significant person. Therefore, it is clear that the women (being Julietta in this case) is almost an in-animate object, which is owned or ‘possessed’ by the man.
Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is an aspiring nun and when she first heard about her brother’s arrest she snaps at Angelo with ‘make me not your story’. She honestly doesn’t believe that her brother has committed such sin and thinks it is all a story. When she comes to plead for her brother’s life, she is clearly virtuous and innocent; untainted by the ills of society and ready to offer up her life to God. Angelo is overtaken by his desires and attracted to her virtuous nature. He offers the proposition that Isabella ‘yield up’ her body to his ‘will’ and he in turn will grant a pardon for Claudio.
The word ‘yield’ suggests Isabella should give in or cower before Angelo’s might as a man and as a ruler. It reflects how Elizabethan men thought of women as possessions, objects and caring about only their bodies and not their souls; that when it came to sex before marriage, women were meant to give up their bodies. Isabella is horrified and refuses, believing that by sacrificing her virginity, she sacrifices her soul. The word ‘will’ shows that Angelo dominates and expects to be obeyed in the ‘relationship’, despite her opinions or rights. As a man in a superior position, Angelo is used to being obeyed and his demands are to be met.
This shows us that men treated women as objects to satisfy their needs. In light of how sexist this play has been, at the end of the play in scene 5 I become almost convinced of how vile the Duke is. He tries to portray himself as this great big hero when he helps Isabella save Claudio; but then injustices that by punishing Lucio so harshly. Prostitutes in those days were thought of as strumpets and marriage with such a person was a ‘sin’. So, Lucio is given an option to marry the whore he impregnated but he never has to repent for what he did.
Actions like this in the Viennese society were highly frowned upon and this highlights even more how badly men thought about women in these situations because Lucio was devastated when the Duke told him his sentence. Isabella, originally on the verge of becoming a nun, finds herself about to marry the Duke. It is interesting that she is not given a chance to reply to the Duke’s marriage proposal in the play. She is assumedly very content to become the spouse of the town’s leader, mainly since he has saved her brother’s life. But at the same time this situation reinforces her loss of sexual independence.
The central conflict in the play revolves roughly around Isabella’s rejection to follow the ways of the majority of the women in Vienna. Her marriage to the Duke confirms her virtue while denying her independence. There are no independent women in Measure for Measure. This is not strange, considering the setting and Shakespeare’s own era. But Measure for Measure gives its women characters even less freedom than other Shakespearean plays. Isabella is the one exception in that she refuses to respond to Angelo’s advances. However, she is still obedient toward the Duke, following all of his instructions.
At the conclusion of the play, the Duke administers punishment to all of the people who have done wrong and rewards the good. Angelo is told to marry Mariana, and he escapes death at her request. The Duke probably does not want to execute Angelo, but wants it made clear that his crime deserves such a punishment. Mariana’s reward is Angelo, which she takes happily, although the Duke tells her that he is unworthy of her love. Claudio is allowed to marry Juliet, and Lucio is punished by being made to marry a prostitute. Marriage is not a specific punishment or reward; however in this situation it is definitely a punishment.
Courtney from Study Moose
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