When I was just in London I saw a performance of Measure for Measure at the Globe. It was a great performance, but I think it’s quite a flawed play. Plays at the Globe often make me think about the imaginative resistance debate, and this one was no exception. First a little history.
I used to think that it was impossible to have moral deviance true in a fiction. I think the version of my imaginative resistance paper online still says that. But I’ve since changed my mind. I now think (tentatively!) that there’s merely a strong default presumption against having morally deviant claims true in a fiction. So it’s impossible to tell a paragraph length story in which morally deviant claims are true, because you just can’t do enough to overcome the presumptions in such a short time. But perhaps it is possible in longer works. (There’s still an asymmetry between moral deviance and factual deviance, and that’s still in need of explanation, but it isn’t as extreme an asymmetry as I thought.)
Seeing Measure for Measure however pushed me back towards the camp of those who think moral deviance is really impossible. Or at least it forces me to revise my views on how the default presumptions can be overridden. (If they can.) I had thought that the following two factors would be centrally important in generating this override. First, the moral deviance must be central to the story. (In the way, for example, it’s central to the Odyssey that Odysseues is a good guy, and hence his actions are morally permissible.) Second, the quality of the writing matters. Badly written propaganda for a morally deviant view won’t work; it requires real talent to overcome the default presumptions.
Now in Measure for Measure I think it is central to the story that the Duke is the good guy. And it’s central to the play’s status as a comedy that the resolution he orders at the end is a just and proper resolution of what has happened. (And Shakespeare of course is a decent writer.) But it just doesn’t seem true that the ending is just and proper. In the performance at the Globe they made quite a point of the fact that Isabella doesn’t get a choice in the matter of whether she is marrying the Duke. Given what she’s been through, this is a particularly egregious failing on the part of the play, and certainly a sense in which the ending is less than morally perfect. In fact none of the forced marriages seem particularly morally praiseworthy. And it isn’t clear why Angelo should not be punished severely for what he’s done, so the Duke’s treatment of him isn’t obviously just either.
I haven’t looked up any of the scholarly treatments of the play, so it’s possible I’m entirely misrepresenting things. Maybe it is meant to be more complicated and it’s not even meant to be true in the fiction that the resolution in act V is just. But if things are meant to be taken as they seem, we have a case where the author doesn’t get his way on which moral propositions are true in the fiction, despite (a) being a writer of Shakespearean talent and (b) making those moral propositions central to the play’s status as the kind of play it is.
Of course one could say similar things about many other Shakespearean comedies, particularly the treatment of Shylock. So this isn’t meant to be a great insight, but it wasn’t something I had noticed before last week at the Globe.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized