A Linguistic History of English Poetry

By Richard Bradford | Go to book overview

2

Shakespeare and the metaphysicals

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

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

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