Academic journal article Style

"Measure for Measure": Chiasmus, Justice, and Mercy

Academic journal article Style

"Measure for Measure": Chiasmus, Justice, and Mercy

Article excerpt

1. Chiasmus, Antimetabole, Commutatio, Permutatio, Counterchange

Ye haue a figure which takes a couple of words to play with in a verse, and by making them to chaunge and shift one into others place they do very pretily exchange and shift the sence.

(Puttenham 208)

'tis true 'tis pity, And pity 'tis, 'tis true-a foolish figure.

(Hamlet 2.2.98-99)

Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern. Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.


I "pretty" and my saying "apt"? Or I "apt" and my saying "pretty"?

(LLL 1.2.18-19)

The use serueth properlie to praise, dispraise, to distinguish, but most commonly to confute by the inuersion of the sentence.


The goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty brief in goodness.

(MM 3.1.182-83)

That we were all as some would seem to be--Free from our faults, or faults from seeming free.


And let the subject see, to make them know

That outward courtesies would fain proclaim Favours that keep within.


Ignominy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses; lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption.

There is an enormous difference in mental travail between passing through the facile reversible chiasmus of pleonasm, virtual identity, or opposition and parsing the complex, conflicted, multiple relationships that chiasmus may demand. In 1589, Renaissance rhetorician George Puttenham (above) captures the figure's easy showiness in his claim that chiasmus can "very pretily exchange and shift the sence." In those three memorably familiar examples of chiasmus from Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare exemplifies its facile wittiness. Then, however, Henry Peacham complicates Puttenham's assessment when he includes among the uses of chiasmus "to distinguish, but most commonly to confute by the inuersion of the sentence." Peacham indicates the work that can be involved in processing chiasmus: its facile "exchange" and "shift" may require us to stop short for being "confuted" and then have to redefine the terms and rethink the relationships between them in inversion." It is Measure for Measure that, above, provides examples of chiasmus compelling us to stop, to puzzle over definitions and relationships, to focus on difficulties--not merely on the definitions, the omissions, the substitutions, but especially on the complex relationships suggested far beyond simple identity, opposition, and substitution involved in chiastic exchanges. Given these complications, we must ask, In what ways can this figure be used? In what ways did Shakespeare use the scheme? And what are the consequences? What can chiasmus do for fun, for memorable aphorism, for such complex thought as analyzing the relationship of justice to mercy?

The kind of linguistic-rhetorical study practiced by Sister Miriam Joseph in creating an anatomy and catalog (Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language) and by M. M. Mahood in examining the dramatic effects of punning (Shakespeare's Wordplay) is undergoing revival and revision both in Keir Elam's elaborated analyses of staged rhetoric in Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse. Language-Games in the Comedies and in Patricia Parker's dizzying interpretive intensifications and expansions of punning into cultural criticism in Shakespeare from the Margins. Language, Culture, Context. In contrast to Elam and Parker, I shall apply techniques such as theirs to a relatively overlooked but intriguing scheme in order to ask that critics, in their analyses and interpretations, pay heed to schemes in the ways we already consider tropes. (1) To this end, I first consider some of the ways chiasmus has been employed. Moving from simple to complex uses, from traditional to recent analyses with familiar illustrations, I shall foc us on analyses of examples in Shakespeare. …

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