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Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

Notoman 20 / 419  
Oct 30, 2009   #1
Yet another Shakespeare essay. I have included the prompt below. I feel like my essay is disorganized and not flowing very well, but some of that has to do with the prompt and the fill-the-blank formatting the teacher provided. I am also wondering if the vocab sounds like I plucked it from a thesaurus or if it works within the context of the essay. I didn't use a thesaurus, but I don't want it sound like I did. I need a title as well. *SIGH* Thank you so much for taking the time to look at this!

The Prompt:

We have used this play to focus on, among other issues, how Shakespeare makes use of characters who seem inconsistent. These characters seem one way in certain scenes and another way in others. They make good choices and then they contradict those good choices. Because we are uncertain about these characters, we say that they are AMBIGUOUS.

Choose one ambiguous character that Shakespeare uses to send a message about one moral issue in the play (sex before marriage, lying, how you treat people, drinking too much, acting "religiously," etc). You will need to explain how that character is ambiguous and link that character to the moral issue. Then decide what the theme is. As we have asked in class, what does Shakespeare support? To what does he show allegiance?

Here is a fill in the blank exercise to help you get started. This wording does not need to show up in your essay, but it hopefully suggests all of the elements you need to cover in the essay.

Shakespeare uses the character_________________ to illuminate this moral issue: ___________.
On the one hand, this character seems______________ because of these moments in the play:
____________________________________________________________ _________________.
However, this character also seems______________ because of these moments in the play:_______________________________________________________ _______________. Possible reason(s) for this difference might be _______________________________________. Out of this ambiguity/uncertainty, the point Shakespeare seems to make about this particular moral issue is ____________________________________________________________ ______. This theme is further supported by these moments in the play not even directly tied to this character:__________________________________________________ ___________________.

The Essay

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure explores morality and human nature. Angelo, a respected deputy to the Duke of Vienna, is placed in charge of the city when the Duke lacks the fortitude to clean up his jurisdiction on his own. As he hands over authority, the Duke tells Angelo, "your soul seems good," (1.1.72) but the Duke realizes that Angelo is only a man and could be tempted to misuse the power of the office. The Duke remains close at hand to supervise the situation. The Duke's reservations prove to be well founded when Angelo unleashes his evil machinations on the virginal Isabella. On the surface, it appears that the characters in Measure for Measure are paradigms of good and evil with the devout on one hand and the prostitutes and bawds on the other, but Shakespeare presents the morality of the characters not as black and white, rather as shades of gray and that humans-by their nature-can be drawn into sin by temptation. Shakespeare uses the character of Angelo to illuminate the moral issue of temptation as Angelo abuses his position and succumbs to carnal desire.

The Duke of Vienna has not been enforcing the laws against lechery and he realizes that the town's judicial system is "More mocked than feared-so our decrees,/ Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,/ And liberty plucks justice by the nose,/ The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/ Goes all decorum" (1.3.28-32). Knowing that Angelo has a reputation as a man who "scarce confesses/ That his blood flows or that his appetite/ Is more to bread than stone," (Duke 1.3.56-58) the Duke charges him with the task of ridding the city of vice in his absence. Shakespeare introduces us to Angelo as a chaste and upright official intent on scouring the city of sin. Angelo sees the lax enforcement of the law as a scarecrow "Setting it up to fear birds of prey,/ and let it keep one shape till custom make it/ Their perch and not their terror," (2.1.2-4) and sets about imposing harsh punishment for infringements. The Duke, cognizant of human nature, mistrusts even the pious Angelo and questions Angelo's morality, saying, "Hence shall we see,/ If power changes purpose, what our seemers be" (1.3.57-58). The Duke, interested to see how the newly-bestowed power will tempt Angelo, disguises himself as a friar and remains in the city to spy on Angelo.

When it comes to prosecuting Vienna's criminals, Angelo takes a literal approach to the law and punishes infractions with zeal. Having not succumbed to sin himself, Angelo lacks the ability to empathize with the people confined in his jail or see the mitigating circumstances surrounding their infractions. Claudio, a young man accused of impregnating his betrothed prior to the finalization of the marriage contract, is arrested and sentenced to death by the unrelenting Angelo. Lucio, a friend of Claudio's, fetches Claudio's sister from the convent and has her importune Angelo to spare her brother's life. Lucio explains to Isabella that Angelo is "a man whose blood/ Is very snow-broth; one who never feels/ The wanton stings and motions of the sense." (1.4.61-63). Lucio explains that Angelo has sentenced Claudio so harshly because he "follows close the rigor of the statue/ To make him an example" (1.4.71-72). Claudio's crime, fornication with a consensual partner, is a mere peccadillo committed by many of Vienna's citizens, but the draconian Angelo resolves to follow the letter of the law, telling Isabella, "It is the law, not I, condemn your brother./ Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,/ It should be thus with him. He must die tomorrow" (2.2.105-107). He does not temper sentences with mercy.

The Duke sagaciously keeps his eye on the seemingly incorruptible Angelo. Lust stirs Angelo's desire for the young maiden Isabella. This longing seems to take Angelo off guard and he questions whether Isabella is acting the seductress before concluding that "temptation doth goad us on/ To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet/ With all her double vigor, art and nature,/ Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid/ Subdues me quite" (2.2.219-223). Until desiring Isabella, Angelo has not been faced with serious temptation. The prostitutes, even with their artful seductions, provide no allure. "The jewel that we find, we stoop and take 't/ Because we see it; but what we do not see,/ We tread upon and never think of it," Angelo says (2.1.26-28). It is easy to eschew wrongdoing when the bait is not tempting. Angelo has yet to capitulate to carnal sin because the temptress does not tempt him, but the godly Isabella's beauty has him wanting to "raze the sanctuary and pitch [his] evils there" (2.2.208-209). It is Isabella's piety that tantalizes Angelo.

"'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,/ Another to fall," Angelo says in 2.1 when asked "Whether [he] had not sometime in [his] life/ Erred in this point which [he] now censure [Claudio],/ And pulled the law upon [himself]." When Isabella offers to bribe him with "true prayers [ ... ] From fasting maids whose minds are dedicate/ To nothing temporal," (2.2.183-187) Angelo, in an aside, says "Amen./ For I am going to temptation/ Where prayers cross" (2.2.191-193). Angelo could have let his yearnings remain hidden, but his newly bestowed authority empowers him and he attempts to coerce the aspiring nun Isabella into a sexual liaison. Angelo tells Isabella: "Redeem thy brother/ By yielding up thy body to my will,/ Or else he must not only die the death,/ But thy unkindness shall his death draw out/ To ling'ring sufferance" (2.4.177-181). The chaste Isabella is aghast at this proposition. When Isabella protests and threatens to expose him, Angelo presses: "Who will believe thee, Isabel?/ My unsoiled name, th' austereness of my life,/ My vouch against you, and my place i' th' state" (2.4.168-170). Angelo wants to not only commit adultery, the same crime he has sentenced Claudio to death for, but compel Isabella to partake in his licentiousness. At least Claudio's partner was a willing participant.

Adultery is a mortal sin in the Catholic Church. "I had rather give my body than my soul," (2.4.59) Isabella proclaims, not willing to be cowed by Angelo's ultimatum even when the result of her refusal will be her brother's death. While adultery is out of the question for her, Isabella would like to save her brother's life and is tempted by the Duke's plan to substitute another woman in the rendezvous with Angelo. Isabella has no qualms about entreating Mariana to copulate with Angelo in her stead. Mariana had been betrothed to Angelo, but when Mariana's dowry is lost at sea, Angelo breaks the marriage contract. Isabella and the Duke, in his churchly vestments that duplicitously convey a power of absolution, convince Mariana to sleep with Angelo. "Fear you not at all./ He is your husband on precontract./ To bring you together 'tis no sin" (4.1.78-80), the Duke persuades Mariana. With this reassurance from a cleric, Mariana agrees to meet Angelo in the guise of Isabella. The Duke and Isabella are limned as moral characters up to this point in the play, but Shakespeare uses their collusion with Mariana to reinforce the theme that people do not have a Manichean nature, but are comprised of good and evil, light and dark, virtue and sin and can have their moral compass swayed by temptation. Isabella, an aspiring nun who wishes for "a more strict restraint" in 1.4.4, loosens her morals in agreeing to set Mariana up to sin.

Shakespeare decries hypocrisy in Measure for Measure. "Shame to him whose cruel striking/ Kills for faults of his own liking" (Duke 3.2.267-268), he writes. Shakespeare's characters at first appear to be either venerable or vile, but they are revealed as neither all good nor all bad in the course of the play. In spite of outwardly appearances, the characters have dualistic natures and give in to temptation. "Heaven forgive him and forgive us all./ Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall," Escalus says in 2.1 (41-42). Shakespeare neither vaunts nor harshly criticizes his characters for their human shortcomings, but demonstrates that "We are all frail" (Angelo 2.4.130). The ambiguities in Measure for Measure reinforce Shakespeare's theme of the disparity inherent in human nature and man's weakness in the face of temptation.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Oct 30, 2009   #2
This essay reads a bit too much like a plot summary for my taste. And how do you prove your thesis, that there is no black and white, but only gray? Angelo is clearly doing something "black" when he tries to pressure Isabella into sleeping with him. That he has hitherto seemed "white" does not in fact make the blackness of his act fade to gray. For that matter, do you really think the audience is supposed to see Angelo's decision to have Claudio executed as "white"?

Also, you start off with a quote from the Duke:

"Hence shall we see,/ If power changes purpose, what our seemers be"

. Is it in fact power that corrupts Angelo? He doesn't seem to sentence Claudio initially out of anything but misguided zeal. Is Angelo's seeming morality merely a result instead of his never having met any serious temptation? It is easy to avoid sinning when one has never felt the urge to do anything sinful. Also, is Shakespeare trying to say that premarital sex between people who are in fact planning on getting married isn't really that big of sin? If not, what is he trying to say about it, since this is the issue you identify in your intro? I don't know if any of this really helps you, I'm afraid, but it does highlight your main problem, which is that you don't really get into the issue that deeply.
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Oct 30, 2009   #3
Thanks for your quick response Sean! I got an 83% on my last Shakespeare essay because I didn't develop my thesis enough. I can see now that this one is heading in the same direction. After reading your comments, I am thinking I might need to change my thesis. I know that Angelo starts out as the model of "good" in the beginning of the play, but quickly shows himself to be the antagonist.

There are some things--what Shakespeare thinks about premarital sex--that I barely touch on. The whole process of marriage in that day is pretty confusing to me. There were several steps ... a private promise of betrothal, arrangement of a dowry, public handfasting with witnesses, and then the banns and solemnization in the church. "Why you are nothing, then, neither maid, widow, nor wife?" the Duke says of Mariana. She is in that gray area of not being single but not being fully married either.

I have always found the relationship between Joseph and Mary of the Bible interesting. The story of Jesus's birth in Luke says that Joseph went to Bethlehem to "enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child." Church scholars have long argued that Joseph and Mary were married and that a betrothal of the day cannot be equated with the engagements in modern times, but they had not yet been married in the church. Was betrothal in Shakespeare's day similar? Even now, people can be married by common law if they present themselves as married. Claudio and Juliet have had a handfasting and Claudio refers to her as his wife--they plan on having the church wedding as soon as they get the funds. Angelo and Mariana might have had a handfasting as well, but Angelo does not see her as his wife--and doesn't intend to go through with a church wedding--because her dowry was lost at sea.

Ironically, my parents just "got married" last spring. They have been married for twenty years--were married by a minister and sent their legal paperwork into the county--but they were not married in the Catholic church and did not receive the sacrament of marriage. The church did not see them as married and technically, my dad--a cradle Catholic--could not receive communion until my mom converted and they were married in the church. I asked facetiously if that meant that my brother and I are bastards. My mom said that she didn't know. What? Mom!

Even something such as marriage is not black and white and it was a lot more gray in Shakespeare's time than it is today.

I am rambling. I'll rework my essay and try to incorporate more analysis. I am thinking I am going to need to change the thesis. Thanks again, Sean. I would much rather read this feedback here than get another low score.
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Nov 2, 2009   #4
Here's my rewrite. I tried to do it in a manner that I would not have to start over, but that changes the focus to temptation and tries to expand a little more on the analysis.

Thank you!!
EF_Kevin 8 / 13,321 129  
Nov 4, 2009   #5
Could you be using paradigms to mean "representations" or "archetypes" or "symbols?"

This first sentence could use a little something...
Shakespeare's Measure for Measure explores morality and human nature. ----> say something bold, something CrAzY that the reader may not expect.

Hey, you have several different statements that could be the thesis statement. Which do you intend as the main idea for the essay. I think you should always be able to capture the main idea of an essay in a single sentence. That way, the essay becomes like a grand sermon on a single, powerful idea.

It is messed up that you have to write in order to prove you read something; that is not how essays are supposed to be, but in school it is necessary. But you write well enough to do a trick and make the essay serve a duel purpose. Even though you are showing that you read it...

Okay, my bad, I see that the last sentence of the first para is the thesis. Oh, I had not looked at the prompt. Give this thing a title that forwards a claim about Angelo, and you are all set. It's great!!
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Nov 4, 2009   #6
I was using "paradigms" to mean archetypes. The word "paragon" had come to mind first, but that doesn't work because it conveys merely a good example. I substituted "paradigm" without thinking too deeply about the word. It isn't the best word here because the meaning that I intended is not the first meaning that comes to most people's minds. Most people think of a paradigm as a way of thinking--a theoretical structure. Paradigms are things that need shifted.

Yes, that first sentence does need something. It is a weak way to start an essay. I have pulled myself up to a "B" in my Shakespeare class. I might be able to finish it with an "A" if work really, really hard. It is probably a good thing that the essay requires students to show that they read the play in my case or my teacher would doubt that I did. I flunked the test on Measure for Measure. I read the play, I studied the play, I really felt like I understood the play. But this test was tough. I am not even sure if I could have passed it if we were allowed to refer to a copy of the work.

We're on to The Merchant of Venice now. Shakespeare has become *much* easier for me to understand.

Thanks for your input!
EF_Kevin 8 / 13,321 129  
Nov 6, 2009   #7
Yeah, and paradigm refers to something like an era... a paradigm of widely accessible information, for example.. the information age.

Wow, sounds like a tough class!! You know, teachers really are supposed to be clear about what is required for a good grade. They are encouraged to provide grade rubrics. Do you get something like that to tell you what is required of you?

What was on the test you flunked? Fill in the blank stuff? Sometimes, the thing to do is read an analysis of each section before reading the section -- so that you can understand the old English.

Interestingly, some ancient Chinese texts about Qigong have been translated in recent years, and Dr. Yang Jwing Ming says there is a similar difficulty... old Chinese is like old English, hard for modern people to understand...

So use analyses and notes as you study!
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Nov 7, 2009   #8
ARGH! 76% on this essay. I knew that I didn't have it nailed, but I thought it would be better than that. I lost points for lack of focus. I can see that in retrospect. I also lost points for having weak topic sentences. It wasn't supposed to be a traditional five-paragraph essay so I didn't give any thought to topic sentences.

I don't think I can pull an A in this class now. It is a very tough class--the toughest I have ever had. My mom says that it is harder than anything she did in high school, college, or even in grad school. We didn't have a rubric, but the teacher did hand out an assignment sheet (most of which I posted here). He has very high expectations for his students. It isn't an AP class or even honors. We are just high school kids. BTW, I did get a hundred percent on the sonnet I had to write--my first 100 on a writing assignment for this class.

The test that I flunked was a combination of fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and quote identification. I did equally poorly on all of the parts. The quote identification was especially difficult. We were given a short quote and then had to identify the speaker, context, what is revealed about the speaker by the line/s, what theme the line/s pertain to, and why the moment was important to the plot. Some of the quotes were easy: "O cunning enemy that, to catch a saint,/ With saints dost bait they hook." And others were really hard: "Go say I sent thee thither" or "He will relent. He's coming. I perceive' 't." I had only read the play once before I had to take the test, but I did study for it. I did some online practice quizzes and reread all of my notes. I read the play again before I wrote my paper and got a lot more out of it the second time.

I am frustrated because I feel like I am working really hard without success.
Mustafa1991 8 / 373 4  
Nov 7, 2009   #9
"We didn't have a rubric..."

This would annoy me, putting it mildly.

I never read much of Shakespeare but the prompt seems straightforward. Also, don't memorize these useless formats they teach you in high school for writing essays. Intuition must be developed on your own as it pertains to when and how you'll begin a new paragraph. "Topic sentence" is a term that I let fall into disuse after 10th grade English.

You want to write naturally and preface each paragraph; setting rigid targets like "topic sentences" instead of bolstering your writing, will erode it.

Lastly, working hard is important but inefficient unless you figure out how to work intelligently. Most often, this involves reflecting on your weak areas and sealing those holes up to prevent leakage of all the effort you've put in, which is a hard thing to do in its own respect.

Post your next assignment and I'll try to have a look at it, perhaps providing you with insight that will prove useful.

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