Being Precise in Measure for Measure

By Hunt, Maurice | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Being Precise in Measure for Measure


Hunt, Maurice, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


PRECISE: "Strict or scrupulous in religious observance; in 16th and 17th c., puritanical" (Oxford English Dictionary 2b). Thus the author of one of the notorious Marprelate Epistles (1589) complains about an assault "on the fort of our precise brethren" (OED 8:1251). By the word "brethren," this writer refers to Elizabethan Puritans. Debora Shuger remarks that "[a]lthough recent revisionist scholarship has called attention to efforts to regulate personal morals that have nothing to do with Puritanism, it has nevertheless tended to confirm the traditional view that Puritans were marked by 'a distinctive preciseness or scrupulosity about their own and other people's moral conduct'" (10-11). (1) When Duke Vincentio early in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure calls recently deputized Angelo "precise," he associates him with the early modern English stage Puritan. (2) Vincentio tells Friar Thomas that one of his reasons for deputing Angelo to rule Vienna in his absence involves a test of Angelo's saintly reputation:

        More reasons for this action
   At our more leisure shall I render you.
   Only this one: Lord Angelo is precise,
   Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses
   That his blood flows or that his appetite
   Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see,
   If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (3) (1.3.48-54)

"Puritans were widely known to their contemporaries as 'precisians,'" James Ellison explains, "after their desire for a strict observance of the laws of Scripture: 'precise' here clearly identifies Angelo's religious leanings" (52). Less radical early modern Protestants often ridiculed more godly Protestants--Puritans--for a hypocritical presumption that they could virtually perfect their morals and manners in accordance with Old Testament directives. Vincentio's calling Angelo "precise" signals the Duke's opinion that Angelo's repression of his natural passions and instincts is puritanical, and most likely suspect, since Vincentio appears to believe that his test will reveal Angelo a "seemer," a hypocrite, in other words. (4)

The list of the traits of the stage Puritan that Shakespeare drew upon in creating Angelo is as long as--if not longer than--the inventory that can be compiled from Malvolio's puritanical characterization in the playwright's Twelfth Night. Like Malvolio, Angelo, in addition to hypocrisy, gives evidence of the stereotypic Puritan's dislike for festivity, his humorless self-importance in matters of morality and behavior, his penchant for pretentious diction, and his secret pride in his social reputation. Lucio portrays Angelo's Puritan-like life-style of repression in his belief that the new deputy's "blood / [i]s very snow broth," flowing through a sober man

        who never feels
   The wanton stings and motions of the sense,
   But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
   With profits of the mind, study, and fast. (1.4.57-61)

Angelo's "precise" (puritanical) speech reveals itself negatively in the Latinate pomposity of his calling Claudio's beloved Juliet a "fornicatress" (2.2.26), but positively in his realization that he, feeling physical desire for the nun Isabella, unlike "the violet in the sun," "[c]orrupt[s] with virtuous season," as carrion indeed does (2.2.173-75). Angelo begins to seem as much the stage Puritan as Malvolio does in the manifold preciseness of his character. More so than Olivia's Steward, Angelo is precise in his legalistic, eye-for-an-eye notion of the law and of justice. In his expression of this talionic concept, Angelo usually appears too precise, as when, comparing murder to conceiving a bastard child through fornication, he tells Isabella that

        It were as good
   To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
   A man already made, as to remit
   Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
   In stamps that are forbid. 'Tis all as easy
   Falsely to take away a life true made
   As to put metal in restrained means
   To make a false one. … 

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