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Written in the Summer of 2013 for a production of Measure for Measure, directed by Jonathan Munby. -DL

In 1929’s Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud tried to organize a chaotic age within a theoretical framework. Human beings, Freud argued, are torn between two psychological forces: eros, or the “pleasure principle,” the desire to create art and make love, and thanatos, or the “death drive” toward conformity, repression and war. Decades earlier, Freud had ushered in an age of increasing sexual liberality by helping to introduce key terms such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” into the worldwide lexicon. Now, as Europe seemed to be backsliding toward world war, Freud depicted the internal struggle of humankind as an apocalyptic drama, animated by the deep-seated desires and tensions of the human condition.

Freud was writing more than three hundred years after the composition of Measure for Measure, but Freud’s interwar Vienna makes a suggestive bedfellow for Shakespeare’s masterpiece of sexual liberty, personal stricture and metaphysical questing. In perhaps no other play does Shakespeare ask us to scrutinize the distinction between the inner and the outer man more. And no other play of Shakespeare’s has remained so radically modern in its outlook, so alive to the interpretive possibilities of the stage, or so ambiguously suspended between eros and thanatos, between comedy and tragedy.

One of the many enigmas of Measure for Measure is its setting in Vienna. The play is Shakespeare’s only one to be set there, and his treatment of the capital of the Holy Roman Empire is unique in the canon. Unlike his Mediterranean plays, Shakespeare’s Vienna is not a land of sunshine and light romantic mischief. Most of the scenes take place at night, casting a dark fog over even the scenes of comic clowning. Bed-tricks and head-tricks abound, as Shakespeare as finds dark humor in the substitution of bodies and body parts. Religion is everywhere: no other Shakespeare play features so many friars and nuns. It is also nowhere, as no other Shakespeare play features religious figures doing such frankly blasphemous things. The only private commerce Shakespeare depicts is Vienna’s roaring sex trade, which is supplanted halfway through the action by the executioner’s axe. Shakespeare’s thoughts in the play are never far from sex and death. The play’s remarkable fifth act, a miniature play-within-a-play, prompts as many questions as it answers.


The play is concerned on a surface level with the intersection of the law, religion and sexuality, but more importantly it calls into question the very idea of the psychological self. The word “seemers” appears in this play for the first time in the English language, and linguistic variations on the idea of “seeming” appear 21 times, more than in any other Shakespeare play. The play also features Shakespeare’s only two uses of the word “shy,” in reference to both the Duke and Angelo. Is Shakespeare saying that all of us are shy seemers, actors in our own skin? That certainly seems to be the case, as substitutions and disguises abound. Along with the aforementioned bed and head tricks, the play begins with the Duke appointing Angelo as his deputy, “one that can my part in him advertise” (Act 1, scene 1). He spends the rest of the play in disguise as a friar, picking through the shards of his shadowy persona. Angelo, modeled on the puritanical zealots of Shakespeare’s era, is quickly revealed to be harboring a rapacious inner lust, in stark contrast to his “outward-sainted” appearance and name. The object of his desires, the beautiful Isabella, also comes cloaked in a mask: a nun’s habit, which proves useless to curbing her desires.

What are all of these characters hiding from? The plot hinges on Isabella’s brother, Claudio, who Angelo sentences to death for impregnating his fiancée Juliet. In the play, Shakespeare is at pains to point out that this original sin – the sin of sexual liberty – is as difficult to legislate as nature itself. As Pompey the bawd asks, when told of Angelo’s desire to regulate sex: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” When the answer is “no,” Pompey replies, “Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to’t then” (Act 2, scene 1).

Most provocative of all, sexual urges repeatedly figure in the play’s language, undergirding the characters’ actions and emotions. Isabella, for instance, has some of the most sexually charged and sadomasochistic language in the entire Shakespeare canon. “Were I under the terms of death,” she tells Angelo:

The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,

And strip myself to death, as to a bed

That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield

My body up to shame. (Act 2, scene 4)

In Isabella’s language, the death-drive and the sex-drive are one and the same. Her desire for spiritual transcendence is transfigured, in typically dark Shakespearean irony, into longing for a fatal climax. Similarly, Angelo’s post-coital speech, delivered after he has had sex with who he believes is Isabella, is also laced with sexual imagery:

This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant

And dull to all proceedings. (Act 4, scene 3)

Angelo is literally withered, “unshaped” by the consummated sexual act. Similarly, the Duke, performing his fatherly functions, fumbles about the stage until Isabella’s dilemma gives him a firm goal and objective. Religion, law, justice – all are potential fields for the suppressed sexual drive to express itself.

Nearly every character in Measure for Measure is torn between similarly divergent desires and passions – between eros and thanatos. Shakespeare is saying that we all rely on outer masks – the friar’s cowl or the nun’s habit – to provide stricture to our fundamentally erotic natures. There is, however, one character in the play who does not hide behind some kind of mask, whose inner soul matches his outer clothes. That character is the sublimely libertine Lucio, whose name puns on Lucifer, in contrast to the devilish Angelo. In Shakespeare’s Vienna, only the devil can serve as one of the better angels of our nature.