Measure 4 Measure

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.

2 Replies to “Measure 4 Measure”

  1. I’m not convinced that one should take the plots of Shakespeare’s comedies (as opposed to his tragedies or history plays) as seriously engaging with moral issues. (This is not to deny that there aren’t speeches or scenes in the comedies that seriously engage with moral issues. Measure for Measure after all contains the great scene between Claudio and Isabella, “Aye, but to die, and go we know not where, To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot …”. But the construction of the plots has more to do with the traditional fascination with scenes of mistaken identity, confusions and their resolution, etc., etc.)

    On the moral issue, the cultural background of the play surely makes a difference here. The Duke is an absolute ruler, like Shakespeare’s royal patron Elizabeth. In theory, marriage in Christian countries always required the consent of the spouses; but absolute monarchs often put pressure on people to get married when it suited the needs of the state, and I doubt that Shakespeare’s audience would have thought of this as a terrible moral problem — more as just one of those awkward facts of life.

    Anyway, Isabella gets to be the Duchess, and the Duke is also a decent guy — how could she seriously want not to marry him? (After all, marriage was conceived to be primarily about status, property, inheritance, etc.. The Romantic conception of marriage hadn’t yet taken a firm hold.) As for Angelo, well, in the world of Shakespearean comedies, we may suppose that he will repent and turn over a new leaf; it was also supposed to be an admirable feature of absolute rulers to show mercy, even in a fairly arbitrary way, especially to those who are of noble blood.

    Of course, I don’t accept many of the moral assumptions that I think lie behind the play. But Shakespeare and his audience did; and I think that that fact needs to be in our minds when we watch the play.

  2. Don’t conclude too much from a 400 year old play. It’s pretty clear from this example that your 2 criteria for making moral deviance true in fiction are not sufficient, but that is certainly not cause for concluding that it’s impossible. Writing in a way that is convincing to your audience involves more than writing well. Making the acceptability of moral deviance plausible seems to me to require the use of some of the audience’s other values & beliefs to build up a framework in which the deviance doesn’t seem so deviant. From Ralph’s post, Shakespeare seemed to be utilizing some values about authority, nobility, and marriage that are no longer widely held. It also seems important to have some empathy or admiration for the “guilty” party.

    Some kinds of moral deviance will be easier than others to sell to a given audience – the more categorical & delineated the audience’s moral belief, and the more readily it comes to mind, the harder it is to get them to accept that it is otherwise in the fictional world. If their belief has some fuzziness or exceptions, they may let the deviance pass even if it doesn’t exacly fit through the gaps, especially if their attention is directed at their other values.

    It would really help to have some examples where moral deviance may come across as true in fiction. One type of case, perhaps contrary to your first criterion of centrality, is expendable characters. If the audience doesn’t have empathy or admiration for them and they’re just kind of annoying, does anybody really care about their being killed? People like Polonius, for instance. Then there are comedies, like School of Rock and Liar, Liar, where the protagonist’s irresponsible, dangerous antics are seen as expressing what’s best about him. Or, what about the Friar (I believe) giving Juliet the fake death potion? Was that action right? Another potential example is the movie Minority Report, [SPOILERS]
    where we’re supposed to accept at the end that the pre-cogs’ freedom is a good thing, even though they’re inviting a murderous crime wave to the city.

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