I’ll come right out and say it: the King of Kings preferred bad ministers. And the King of Kings preferred them because he liked to appear in a favourable light by contrast. How could he show himself favourably if he were surrounded by good ministers? The people would be disoriented… There can be only one sun.1
1The story of Measure for Measure in the twenty-first century has been a comedy of substitution, in which we have watched the play’s ‘demigod authority’ (1.2.112) make way for a ‘new governor’ (154), whose ‘commission’ (1.1.13), “so to enforce or qualify the [work] / As to [his] soul seems good” (65-66) has strangely reinforced its theme, that we “shall […] see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be’ (1.3.53-4), thus proving ‘the hood does not make the monk’: “Cucullus non facit monachum” (5.1.261). For whether or not Thomas Middleton appreciated the irony when he was commissioned the original author’s ‘absence to supply’ (1.1.18), by revising Shakespeare’s 1604 comedy of substitute sex in the city for the 1623 Folio, the recent reassignment of much of the extant text to this deputizing dramatist has uncannily paralleled its plot, where, in the sovereign’s ‘remove’ (43), his ‘place and greatness’ (4.1.60) is delegated to a ‘precise’ lieutenant (1.3.50), a stand-in promoted as ‘one that can’ the master’s ‘part in him advertise’ (1.1.41), whose over-zealous interpretation of his scope to ‘borrow place of him’ (5.1.361) simply goes to expose his failure, however, to measure up to his precursor, the ‘old fantastical Duke of dark corners’ (4.4.156), who is thereby reinstated on his throne.
- 2 All’s Well That Ends Well, Susan Snyder ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, 1.3.54-55.
2Shakespeare and Middleton seem such strange bedfellows, the one with suspect Catholic connections in Stratford, the other an official of the City of London Protestant elite, that their alliance in the aftermath of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, initially on Timon of Athens and Macbeth, suggests a shotgun marriage. It is as if a Roundhead teamed up with a Cavalier. Yet ‘Young Charbonne the puritan and old Poisson the papist, howsome’er their hearts are severed in religion’, smiled Shakespeare tolerantly in All’s Well That Ends Well at this time, ‘their heads are both one: they may jowl horns together like any deer i’th’herd’.2 So perhaps the relaxed veteran was forced to hand over to someone younger and more rigorous in the panic of the Plot. But, however these improbable partners were made to bang heads together, reading the composite or ‘genetic text’ of Measure for Measure produced for the 2007 2016-page Oxford edition of the so-called ‘collected works of Thomas Middleton’, where the presumed original lines are printed grey and the proxy’s bold, we reprise the same suspicion of some ‘sinister measure from his judge’ (3.2.236-37) as we sense when we see the novice ‘figure dressed’ in the Duke’s ‘ample grace and honour’ (1.1.23), as if Middleton had been set up for a fall, or that Shakespeare’s ‘true meant design’ (1.4.55) was that this play about ghosting, which opens with an old hand handing a play-script to an understudy, ‘From which’, he warns, ‘we would not have you warp’ (1.1.14), should be completed with similar ineptitude, to make him appear in the most favorable light:
Therefore, indeed […]
I have on Angelo imposed my office,
Who may in the ambush of my name strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
T’allow in slander. (1.3.39-43)
- 3 Johnson, 173.
- 4 Taylor, 58.
- 5 Ibid, 55.
- 6 Ibid, 37.
3Though Dr Johnson believed ‘there is not one of Shakespeare’s plays more darkened’ than Measure for Measure by the ‘unskillfulness, […] distortions of phrase, or negligence’ of its Folio transcription, to his Oxford supporters the aptly-named Middleton’s ‘deputation’ as a mediator of the text we now possess proves he succeeded to ‘all the organs’ of his master’s ‘power’ (1.1.20).3 As early as 1636 the younger playwright was regarded as ‘Shakespeare’s true heir’, Gary Taylor points out; and the monumentally weighty ‘Middleton Folio’ is designed to crown him at last as a legitimate inheritor, ‘Our other Shakespeare… that we can carry to our private desert islands’.4 Clearly, if any ‘be of worth / To undergo such ample grace and honour’ (23), it is the author of The Changeling, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Women Beware Women, and according to this count, The Revenger’s Tragedy, a masterpiece Middleton wrote at twenty-six, ‘Shakespeare’s age when he churned out Henry VI, Part Two’, Taylor jibes.5 The Middletonians have an axe to grind about the Bard. But such scholarship has revolutionised our understanding of the collective habits of Elizabethan playwrights, who are now more than ever seen as journeymen, ‘who often did piecework, writing new additions to old plays – as Middleton did to Shakespeare’s’, in Taylor’s words, publishing ‘in the ambush of his name’, and so ‘Upon his place, / And with full line of his authority’ (1.4.55-6).6
- 7 ‘Posthumous collaboration’: Hutchings and Bonham, 64.
- 8 Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl, ‘All’s Well that Ends Well: an attribution refuted’ (Times Literary (...)
- 9 ‘“Double” and “other”’: Bednarz, 234.
- 10 ‘Collaborative environment’, Hutchings and Bonham, op. cit. (note 6), 64.
4Textual research has established Measure for Measure beyond question as a ‘posthumous collaboration’, and ensured we can never go back to the sovereign Shakespeare. But this raises other questions about Middleton’s role as intermediary between the dead author and the King’s Men who late in 1621 required a rewriting.7 For the ‘media get excited by any attempt, however weak, to take something away from Shakespeare’, bemoaned Sir Brian Vickers recently in the Times Literary Supplement, after Laurie McGuire had published an article intriguingly claiming co-authorship of All’s Well That’s End Well for Middleton.8 So, if he is to be acknowledged not only as a part-author of Macbeth and Timon of Athens, but also of Measure for Measure, this veritable middleman’s ‘enforcing or qualifying’ of the work he inherited as ‘Shakespeare’s “double” and “other”’ creates similar problems as Angelo’s stand-in for the absent Duke: ‘What figure […] think you, he will bear’ in this complicated act of succession (16); and is the creator’s ‘world as it was’, after such a prosthetic makeover?9 How extensive is the reworking of the Bard by the middling writer? And how did Measure for Measure differ ‘in the collaborative environment of the playhouse’ of 1621, to the play Shakespeare was alive to supervise in 1604?10 ‘Which is the way? Is it sad or few words? Or how? The trick of it?’ (3.2.44-5).
5If we accept that Measure for Measure has come down to us via Middleton, acting as a safe pair of hands, as it seems we must, it is appropriate that this should beg so many questions about how much he ‘enforced’ or ‘qualified’ his assignment, seeing as its Biblical title demands we make just such comparisons: ‘Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure’ (5.1.408-409). With its allusion to the scales of justice, the title in fact highlights how the action involves the audition of a parade of underwhelming seconds-in-command, as one after another clueless yet conscripted middleman strives to live down the Duke’s slight on his deputy’s own deputy Escalus, who ‘Though first in question, is thy secondary’ (1.1.46), the viceroy is assured. The headless city of this famously inconclusive comedy seems indeed to be entirely franchised out to vice-principals, with Angelo deputizing for Duke Vincentio, Escalus for Angelo, Isabella for Claudio, Mariana for Isabella, Friar Peter for Friar Thomas, Pompey for the headsman Abhorson, Barnardine for Claudio, and the actual head of Ragusine, yet another substitute of a substitute, for Barnadine’s. The premise of this macabre prevision of Schnitzler’s La Ronde is that Isabella must yield her maidenhead to Angelo to save her brother Claudio’s head. But per capita, everybody in this decapitated capital ‘must change persons with’ some missing head (5.1.334), as the Duke tells Lucio, and as Friar Peter says he represents his Father Superior Lodowick, who is actually the absconding sovereign in disguise: ‘To speak, as from his mouth, what he doth know / Is true and false’ (157-58).
6Conscripted as an extra into the executioner’s ‘mystery’, Pompey wonders ‘[w]hat mystery there should be in hanging’ (4.2.37). But like the Duke’s other deputies, the pimp is ready to hear a head man unfold ‘the properties’ ‘of government’ (1.1.1), he says: ‘I hope, if you have occasion to use me for your own turn, you shall find me yare’, with ‘your block and your axe’ (4.2.50). Of course, death-row is meant to be the headquarters, and capital punishment the heading, of any pre-modern sovereign state, where as Michel Foucault gruesomely recounted, power put itself on display in savage rites of execution, a ceremonial literally capped at the moment of sentencing in England when the judge donned a black cap. In Shakespeare’s Vienna, however, starting with the Duke’s symbolic self-decapitation, when he cuts off his ‘absolute power’ to sentence to death in favour of ‘life removed’ (1.3.8), a self-subordination encapsulated in his syntactically inverted opening declaration that his function now will precisely not be ‘Of government, the properties to unfold’, the buck is for ever passed to someone else. So critics compare Measure for Measure to the paintings of Caravaggio, where in acephalic pictures such as David and Goliath the exactly contemporary artist deconstructs the very possibility of sovereignty by portraying his own wide-eyed yet disembodied head. For the text Shakespeare left behind also seems to have been intent on decapitating any sovereignty centred on power over life and death. As Julia Lupton observes in her book Afterlives of the Saints, in its circulation of beheading imagery through all its ‘saucy’ equivalences in ‘stamps that are forbid’ (2.4.46), with decollated heads of state, heads on coins, and maidenheads, Measure for Measure displaces the archaic and self-centred sovereignty of the execution scaffold into the universalism of a post-Christian modernity:
In Measure for Measure, the relentless circulation of severed heads converts the coinage of martyrological beheading into the common currency of sex and politics. The exchange of heads and maidenheads in particular emblematizes the play’s climactic substitution of the martyred saints of hagiography for martyred heroines of romantic comedy, a generic transaction that installs Shakespeare’s play as the afterlife of the Catholic saints. This use of decapitation as a principle of secularization – like castration in psychoanalytic theory – represents the gesture of symbolization par excellence… The play uses the hagiographic motif of decapitation in order to decapitate hagiography itself…11
7In desiring ‘a more strict restraint’ (1.4.4), according to this reading, Isabella merely mimes an impression of a condemned martyr, a word the nun uses about herself that keys into the text’s capitalist metaphors of coining, counterfeiting, and printing, and that thereby betrays her second-hand imitativeness, when she boasts how she will flaunt the ‘impression of keen whips… as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed’ (2.4.101-102). In sacrificial cultures that glorify capital punishment such as Jacobean England, Revolutionary France, or the United States, such suffering, especially by hanging or beheading, is supposed to capture meaning as a capstone or a terminus of representation, Julia Kristeva explains in Capital Visions, her grimly captivating history of the severed head: ‘The thoroughly displayed beheading signals the end point of the visible. The show is over, ladies and gentlemen, move on! There is nothing more to see!’12 In this play, however, the execution of Barnardine that is planned to compel such a capitulation is indefinitely deferred, when the Duke agrees to ‘omit / This reprobate till he were well inclin’d, / And satisfy the deputy with the visage / Of Ragozine’ (4.3.72-5).
- 13 Darnton.
- 14 Wilson, 97 and 103, quoting Foucault, 139.
8All the insecurities of the Enlightenment are inscribed in the Duke’s scheme to ‘satisfy’ his ‘deputy’ with a pretend guillotine and simulacrum of a disembodied head. As Robert Darnton relates in The Great Cat Massacre,early moderns would devise many such mimetic practices, involving trial and execution of dogs, or in England, burning of masked effigies of Catholics, like the Gunpowder Plotter Guy Fawkes, to ‘satisfy’ the craving for catharsis.13 In Vienna, however, neither the deputy nor public will be satisfied; for if Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s Das Capital,his idea seems to be that this show can never be caput, for it is only by capitalising on an ‘accident’, when the ‘notorious pirate’ Ragozine dies of gaol-fever , that substitutions are here brought to a head. So, as anyone who has read Foucault will recognise, this regime ‘has long ago begun the experiment of abandoning public violence in return for private discipline’, thereby vindicating ‘that crucial shift in the economy of punishment whereby, starting in the seventeenth century, “the ancient right to take life was replaced by a new power to foster life”.’14 But what frustrates the deputy who picks up this legacy of ‘too much liberty’ (1.2.118) and suggests his affinity with the Middleton who follows easy-going Shakespeare, is the problem of closure in such a headless state or pointless play, for as Angelo explodes to his seconder:
This will last out a night in Russia
When nights are longest there. I’ll take my leave,
And leave you to the hearing of the cause;
Hoping you’ll find good cause to whip them all. (2.1.133-36)
- 15 ‘I am the decider’: quoted in Foster, 31-2; ‘Sovereign is he who decides’: Schmitt, 5.
- 16 Leggatt, 344. See also Black, esp. 124-5.
9In a Viennese courtroom poised like Jacobean London’s between the normative rule of common law and the arbitrariness of royal prerogative, Angelo itches to end these games of amnesty and commutation by flexing his absolute ‘scope of justice’ (5.1.233). Reneging on his promise of a pardon, he will therefore have ‘Claudio’s head sent’ to him ‘by five’ (4.2.121). Acting on this executive order at ‘an unusual hour’ without ‘a special warrant’ (5.1.457) will cost the Provost his job. But like President Bush, who loved to declare, ‘I am the decider’, the deputy has learned enough about political theology to know that ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’.15 For what Angelo seems to share with Shakespeare’s successor is the perception that when the old ruler devolved power to his ‘secondary’, supposedly to be ‘full [him]self’ (1.1.43), he in fact triggered an avalanche of insubordination, since all the substitutions so crucial to the plot are ‘in various ways, unsatisfying’.16
10In Shakespeare’s city, it seems that the ‘mad fantastical trick’ of the Duke ‘to steal from the state’ (3.2.89-90), merely formalizes the regime’s long evolution towards a representative government. Thus, Elbow explains that ‘as they are chosen’ themselves, the representatives of ‘the generous and gravest citizens’ (4.6.13) are likewise ‘glad to choose’ him for Constable (2.1.266). ‘Our city’s institutions and the terms / For common justice’ (1.1.10-11) run on a highly devolved subsidiarity the officer understands. But Escalus is unimpressed by this Dad’s Army of reserves: ‘Look you, bring me in the names of some six or seven, the most sufficient in your parish’ (2.1.269-70). Since the whole play, as we have it, will involve just such a ‘leavened and prepared choice’ (1.1.51) to find ‘the most sufficient’ in ‘our city’, a head man ‘of stricture and firm abstinence’ who will halt the carrousel of substitutions by monopolizing ‘absolute power and place’ (1.3.13), Elbow’s quest for this great decider appears doomed. For not only does Angelo vitiate his own viceroyalty with his insubordination, but as Alexander Leggatt observes, these endless failed surrogacies unhinge the very concept of representation on which a Christian society is built:
- 17 Leggatt, op. cit. (note 14), 344.
God acts on man through a series of substitutions: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and the priesthood – represented here by the Duke who dresses up as a Friar and goes around hearing confessions in a manner that would produce a major scandal in an actual Catholic community. In every case the substitution, as it appears in Measure for Measure, is in some way clouded in irony… For Angelo and Elbow have this in common: they fail to perform adequately in the roles assigned to them.17
11In Shakespearean Vienna the Duke’s devolution project generates a crisis of representation that extends to the most vicarious of substitutions, and the transubstantiation symbolism of the body and blood of Christ. Thus, ‘When I would pray and think, I think and pray / To several subjects’, Angelo laments, with ‘Heaven in my mouth, / As if I did but only chew his name’ (2.4.1-5). Of course, this Eucharist reference must originally have read ‘God in my mouth’; so it is particularly ironic that the allusion to the sacramental host has been expurgated by Middleton’s alteration of ‘God’ to ‘Heaven’ throughout the Folio, in obedience to the 1606 Act of Abuses banning theatres from taking God’s name in vain. ‘He who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body’, writes St. Paul [1 Cor. 11:29]; for Christ’s sacrifice is ‘given without measure’, according to John 3:34. So in the earlier text Angelo’s chewing vainly on Christ’s name linked him with Protestant reformers like Calvin who measured, or like Zwingli denied, the real presence of Christ’s body in the consecrated bread. Middleton had been born into just such de-sacralising radical Protestantism; but the effect of taking the word of God out of the actors’ mouths was to re-sacralise the host they put there as the transcendental signifier, the body of Christ. The implications for a drama set in a headless city of capping society as ‘one mystical body the head of which is Christ’, go way beyond censorship; for as Ernst Kantorowicz explained in his famous book The King’s Two Bodies, the political theology of sacred kingship – ‘the belief that rulers mediated, represented, or reflected divinity’18 – was bound up with this substitution doctrine of ‘the real presence of both the human and divine Christ in the Eucharist’:
- 19 Kantorowicz, 196 and 199.
Here, at last, in the assertion of the “Lord’s Two Bodies” – in the bodies natural and mystic, personal and corporate, individual and collective of Christ – we seem to have found the precise precedent of the “King’s Two Bodies”.19
12According to the revelatory Oxford editor, John Jowett, in 1604 Angelo literally bid the retiring Duke adieu, saying ‘The Lord give safety to your purposes’; but in 1621 commended him only to ‘the heavens’ (1.1.73). Likewise, ‘heaven keep your honour’, Isabella greeted the deputy, before this was moderated to ‘Heaven’ (2.2.42). Such euphemisms often ruin Shakespeare’s imagery, as when the nun tells the judge he can pardon Claudio, ‘And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy’ (2.2.50). Lucio’s meek ‘indeed’, instead of in faith, banalizes a character who we hear speak ‘much more, much worse’ (5.1.336). The Folio’s Lucio is an over-complicated character, half court jester, half police informer. But the loss of such profanities as ’Sblood  and fore God  tames his insolence. These adaptations were introduced in deference to the government of King James; yet, like Middleton’s imposition of acts and scenes, they are indicative not only of the urge of the succeeding generation to introduce decorum, but of the new seriousness with which it had come to reconsider Shakespeare’s plot, which in its perpetual insubordination must have worked precisely by taking the name of God, along with all His avatars and vicars, including His living representative, the king himself, in vain.
- 20 Jowett, and note to 5.1.476, in Middleton, op. cit. (note 3), 1543 and 1584.
- 21 Ibid., 1546.
13Middleton’s Lucio not only swears like a lamb, he is raised to the choric role of confidant that formerly belonged to the Provost, when he encourages Isabella’s plea for Claudio’s life, with added interjections such as, ‘Thou’art in the right girl. More o’that’ (2.2.130). Many of the changes in the earlier scenes of the surviving play were introduced to build this clown up as the Duke’s foil who, in the later alterations, can then be knocked down. Thus, as the Oxford edition footnotes, the clown’s ‘marrying a punk’ (5.1.520) is unnecessary to the ending, but when inserted in 1621 it awards the Duke the last word: ‘Slandering a prince deserves it’ (5.1.521).20 And nowhere is this deference to princely power more telling than in the rearrangement of the one speech that directly invokes the doctrine of divine right, the Duke’s rhyming couplets about ‘the sword of heaven’, which he originally spoke as a self-critical aside while Isabella was plotting the bed-trick with Angelo’s jilted Mariana onstage, thus incriminating what he calls ‘my vice’ in this shady ‘Craft’, but that in the Folio is moved forward, isolated from the now unseen intrigue by an act division, and then followed by a sentimental song about lips that ‘sweetly were forsworn’, from a hit of 1618 called Rollo, Duke of Normandy, to become the privileged, soliloquized hinge of the entire play. The introduction of the unique song bathes the scenes that precede and follow it in numinous light, and as Jowett remarks, accentuates the importance of Mariana by imposing a fresh two-part structure on the play: ‘The act-interval moats the grange from Vienna; the song that follows it reinforces that separation and affirms the new turning-point’ with ‘a prospect that a spirit of romantic tragicomedy might perhaps prevail’.21 But it also elevates the Duke’s soliloquy to providential status:
He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe,
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go,
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice, and let his grow. (3.2.254-63)
14“Here comes a man of comfort, whose advice / Hath often stilled my brawling discontent” (4.1.9), announces Mariana to the chorister who has been singing of stolen kisses in the daybreak scene, once attributed to John Webster but now definitively assigned to Middleton, that was interpolated to edify the Duke’s commanding position at this mid-point of the Folio text. Its author could not resist a puritanical, and very un-Shakespearean, disclaimer about the danger of music provoking ‘good to harm’ (15); but Jowett connects this operatic intermission to the fashion for Fletcherian tragicomedy in the 1620s. The new turning-point radically changed Shakespeare’s comedy into Middleton’s tragicomedy, according to this analysis. For there had surely been no such interlude of Mariana and her watery grange in the pre-existing city comedy, nor any hint that the Duke visited her in such a pastoral retreat. Yet the episode would become one of the most frequently illustrated in English literature after it inspired ‘Mariana’, Tennyson’s tear-jerking poem of 1831, where ‘In sleep she seems to walk forlorn, / Till cold winds wake the grey-eyed dawn, / About the lonely moated grange’. And this Middleton-influenced afterlife would have a profound impact on the twentieth-century Christological interpretation of the play.
- 22 Nosworthy, 23.
- 23 Knight, 88.
15Popular paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite artists John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti established Middleton’s pseudo-Shakespearean rendezvous in the Victorian imagination as a quintessential instant of romantic longing; and modern theatre directors have heightened its seductiveness by breaking for a drinks interval after the Duke’s speech. The effect during the twentieth century was to invest the ‘sword of heaven’ soliloquy with the spiritual aura that was presumably the adaptor’s intention, when he turned it from a confession of human fallibility into an assertion of royal omnipotence and self-control. In this pivotal position the speech came to prove how, in the words of the Penguin editor, ‘a thoroughly irresponsible ruler belatedly learns his business and ends by conforming to the pattern of the ideal prince’.22 Thus the picturesque décor Middleton supplied for Shakespeare’s play worked not only to update it for the candlelit indoor musical theatre of the 1620s, but also to put the cap on its game of substitutions. For in the Folio, the buck stops decisively with ‘He who the sword will bear’, the divinely-appointed decider who is now ready to be what Wilson Knight called him in 1930: ‘the prophet of a new order of ethics, like Jesus’, and who a craven Angelo indeed proclaims at the end of the existing play:23
O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes. (5.1.364-68)
- 24 Nosworthy, op. cit. (note 21), 15.
16It was Middleton’s tampering with Shakespeare’s text, the Oxford volume makes us realise, that transformed it from a drama of demonic substitution, focused on the ‘outward-sainted deputy’ (3.1.88), like its Elizabethan source, George Whetstone’s play Promos and Cassandra, into an allegory of divine sovereignty, idealizing the monarch as a deus ex machina. In Whetstone, old King Corvinus of Hungary is the ineffectual recluse we glimpse in the first half of Measure for Measure, the over-indulgent ‘father of much fast’, who ‘held in idle price to haunt assemblies’ (1.3.9), and let the people go their way, ‘Like rats that ravin down their proper bane’ (1.2.121), by having ‘the strong statutes / Stand like forfeits in a barber’s shop, / As much in mock as mark’ (5.1.318-20). Whetstone’s king does not preach about his subjects’ morals, hide in disguise, fix marriages, or engineer the happy end, which comes about only because the gaoler takes it on himself to swap the head of an executed man for that of the condemned one. Perhaps the Provost played the same crucial role before being demoted by Middleton. For though Promos and Cassandra reflects political conditions in 1578, when Tudor England was a republic in all but name, its dispersal of power may still be close to the delegated authority that was the cause of comedy before Middleton made the Duke into the ‘meddling friar’ (5.1.130). The ‘problem play’ that resulted from Middleton’s concentration of ‘absolute power and place’ (1.3.13) on this one man used to be attributed to Shakespeare’s gamesmanship: he ‘deliberately built up the problems for the sheer joy of resolving them’ it was said.24 But if the Oxford editors are correct, the real problems of Measure for Measure in fact reflect the regression from Tudor parliamentarianism to Stuart absolutism, and the drift towards personal rule, the mark of which, in an influential book of 1966, ‘Measure for Measure’ as Royal Entertainment, Josephine Bennett was able to pinpoint precisely to this moment of the play:
At the end of the third act in Measure for Measure the Duke steps out his disguise and addresses the audience, to explain his principles of government and his plan for correcting Angelo. This soliloquy turns King James’s concept of kingship into tetrameter verse….For this purpose Shakespeare used the King’s own picture of himself as it appears in his ‘king’s book’… BasilikonDoron:
God gives not Kings the style of Gods in vain,
For on his throne the Scepter they do sway:
And as their subjects ought them to obey,
So Kings should fear and serve their God again.25
- 26 ‘the great eclipse’: Moretti.
- 27 Shakespeare, 1Henry IV, ed. A.R. Humphreys, Methuen (The Arden Shakespeare), Londond and New York, (...)
17When Middleton broke the back of Shakespeare’s comedy of commutation by having the Duke extol ‘the sword of heaven’ in solitary eminence, he had to shift the monarch’s melancholy meditation on the ‘millions of false eyes’ that are ‘stuck’ on ‘place and greatness’ back to the end of the new act, to cover Isabella’s intrigue with Mariana, where its inappropriateness to a moment when a ruler is exercising his own all-seeing ‘Craft’ only underlines the drastic change of scene. Until this moment, it would appear, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure had been developing his theme of ‘the great eclipse’26 of monarchy marking the eve of liberal constitutionalism, the general amnesty when the king “carded his state, / Mingled his royalty with cap’ring fools,” and “[had] his great name profanèd with their scorns”.27 The Duke indulges this ‘permissive pass’ as a Brueghel-like carnival season, when ‘Liberty plucks justice by the nose’, since the monarchy is now too implicated in its subjects’ lives to ‘unloose’ the ‘tied-up Justice’ that goes with ‘absolute power’. Middleton would turn this merry havoc into a Hogarthian morality by stigmatising the low life with names like Mistress Overdone. But Vincentio sounds as if he has been visiting the playhouses, because the mayhem he depicts, when ‘the threatening birch’ is stuck up ‘for terror, not to use’, is indeed the carnivalesque scenario of all Shakespeare’s previous comedies, where symbolically at least, “The baby beats the nurse and quite athwart / Goes all decorum” (1.3.30-31).
- 28 A Midsummer Night’sDream, ed. Peter Holland, Oxford (World’s Classics), OUP, 1995, 4.1.176, 1.1.41
- 29 Skura, 143.
- 30 ‘Downright schizophrenic’: Gless, 156.
18Ever since that bright Midsummer morning when Duke Theseus delights his subjects by agreeing to ‘overbear’ the ‘ancient privilege of Athens’,28 Shakespearean monarchy, ‘[i]n the delaying death’ (4.2.163) has been progressively absorbing its citizens’ lesson that, as his Viennese counterpart admits, “’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them / For what I bid them do” (1.3.36-7). Thus, making ‘privily away’ (68) with ‘safe discretion’ (71), the rulers of these plays are well on the way to becoming the bicycling royals of modern democracy, who “love the people, / But do not like to stage [themselves] to their eyes”, and no longer “relish well / Their loud applause and Aves vehement” (1.1.67-70). As Meredith Skura says, “The Duke claims to have no need of approval. The whole problem in Vienna has arisen because he disdains (rightly, we think) the gaudy public display which is inherent in a duke’s role”.29 It therefore makes it seem ‘downright schizophrenic’ when, half way through the text he took up, Middleton changes the Duke from being ‘absolute for death’ (3.1.5) to being ‘absolute’ for ‘power and place’ (1.3.13); from ‘a shy fellow’ (3.2.127), who despises spectacles “[w]here youth and cost witless bravery keeps” (1.3.10), and confesses his failings to a Friar, into the histrionic showman who brazenly faces down Lucio’s accurate report that it was his ‘feeling of the sport’ (3.2.115-16) that ‘instructed him to mercy’ (3.2.116-17), with a melodramatic sequence of ‘fantastic tricks’ (2.2.122) or ‘bringings-forth’ (3.2.141), that not only puts his own power on vainglorious display ‘to the envious’, as ‘a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier’ [3.2.142), but spotlights the humiliating show-trial of his fallen favourite:30
O, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it
To lock it in the wards of covert bosom,
When it deserves with characters of brass
A forted residence ’gainst the tooth of time
And razure of oblivion. Give me your hand,
And let the subject see, to make them know
That outward courtesies would fain proclaim
Favours that keep within (5.1.10-17)
- 31 The Whole Royal and Magnificent Entertainment, ed. R. Malcolm Smuts, in Middleton, op. cit. (note 3 (...)
19The Stuart monarchs would learn a lot from Middleton’s Measure for Measure about raising and disgracing over-mighty ministers, such as Sir Francis Bacon, whose fall in 1621 coincided with the revision of the play. With Angelo on his right hand and Escalus ‘on our other hand’ (18), balanced like the scales of justice, to represent the two ‘good supporters’ (19) of a triumphal arch, Duke Vincentio’s final entry into Vienna has indeed the intimidating heraldry of one of King James’s processions. And this is not surprising, given that it was actually Middleton who orchestrated the new king’s ceremonial entry into London, on March 15 1604, with a moral pageant performed at the Fleet Street arch, in which the figure of Zeal preached that all classes burned with ‘holy zeal’ to see James rule with ‘Justice in causes, Fortitude ‘gainst your foes, / Temp’rance in spleen, and Prudence in all those’. By identifying puritanical ‘zeal’ with the ‘joys on every subject’s face’, Middleton thus gave the lie to the myth that Protestants like him were opposed to ‘absolute power’. Instead, The Whole Royal and Magnificent Entertainment, as it was entitled, ushered in the Stuart ruler as a reformer whose all-seeing ‘regal eye’ would advance ‘new faces and new men’: ‘So with reverberate shouts our globe shall ring, / The music’s close being thus: God save our King!’31 Likewise, Measure for Measure ends with the Duke commanding the Provost to ‘Proclaim’ his justice ‘round about the city’ (5.1.506); and this ostentation is so at odds with earlier scenes that decry ‘man, proud man, /Dressed in a little brief authority’ (2.2.118-19), that it makes one wonder what Middleton would have done if had been able to write a drama with the same plot without Shakespeare’s complicating reservations about monarchy. And actually, we do not need to look far to find out, because as a matter of fact he did.
20Middleton wrote his first play The Phoenix for the choirboys of St Paul’s some time in 1604, in the same months as the King’s Men were preparing Measure for Measure for the Globe, and it seems likely the twenty-four-year-old tyro devised it after seeing a copy of Shakespeare’s script. James attended gala performances of both plays. But the title of The Phoenix implies it was composed to trump the older dramatist’s peculiar take on kingship, since it refers to the myth of the bird reborn from its ashes that Elizabeth adopted, and her successor embraced, as an image of the political theology of ‘The King’s Two Bodies’, that ‘the king never dies’. Pointedly, then, Middleton’s Duke of Ferrara has reigned for forty-five years, the same as the queen when she died, while Phoenix is the actual name of his heir who awaits the succession in disguise. Clearly, The Phoenix was meant to be more royalist than the king. But the possibility that the play was also intended to be more royalist than Measure for Measure is strengthened by evidence that Shakespeare’s work, with its Italian names, was once set in Ferrara too, and that it was Middleton who changed its location to Vienna, in deference to James’s schemes to avert the Thirty Years War by negotiating a ‘composition with the King of Hungary’ (1.2.2). When he overturned Shakespeare’s comedy, therefore, the author of The Phoenix had form as a celebrant of James, and had even ghosted with Lord Bacon The Peacemaker, a pamphlet on the role of Rex Pacificus, published in 1618 in the king’s own name.32 By then Middleton had risen to be archivist of the City of London, as well as stage-manager of its Lord Mayors’ Shows, whose business made him its true ‘looker-on’ [5,1,314-15]. So when he next took on Shakespeare, what he transferred from one text to the other, with such confusing consequences for critics, was the moral ideal that runs throughout his writing, of a great decider, a head man like Prince Phoenix, according to his father, whose power comes from the ‘regal eye’ that sees the ‘character’ in a man’s life ‘That to th’observer doth [its] history / Fully unfold’ (1.1.28-9):
- 33 The Phoenix, ed. Lawrence Danson and Ivo Kamps, in Middleton, op. cit. (note 3), 1.5.179-82.
State is but blindness; thou hadst piercing art
We only saw the knee, but thou the heart.
To thee then power and dukedom we resign;
He’s fit to reign whose knowledge can refine.33
- 34 Gless, op. cit. (note 28), p. 156.
21“My business in this state / Made me a looker-on here in Vienna”, echoes the Folio Duke, “[w]here I have seen corruption boil and bubble / Till it o’errun the stew’ (314-17). If Shakespeare editions have been slow to absorb the news from Vienna that the schizophrenia of Measure for Measure is a result not of ‘authorial despair, haste, forgetfulness, or despondency’, but of its having been constructed by two dramatists of distinct generations and mentalities, working some sixteen years apart, they have nonetheless always registered resistance in the play to this totalitarian project of putting power on display.34 Barnardine, the Bohemian prisoner who will take no ‘advice’ from the authorities about being ‘absolute for death’ (3.1.5), and ‘will not die today for any man’s persuasion’ (4.3.58-9), has therefore come to personify some deep Shakespearean obstruction to the political theology of kings and the social logic of the headsman. To Middleton’s promoters, of course, it is the claim that Measure for Measure belongs in his ‘Collected Works’ that makes the play more accessible, democratic and modern. And it has long seemed that this metropolitan moraliser of ‘filthy vices’ (2.4.42), whose enlightened radicalism was of such ‘stricture and firm abstinence’ (1.3.12), would make a more comprehensive and politically correct candidate for the title of Bard of Britain than the shifty immoralist from Stratford. Yet fixed now among Middleton’s complete plays, Measure for Measure appears a work about the impossibility of ever completing in this way what was left ‘to be continued’. And the “leavened and prepared choice” (1.1.51) to succeed the “very superficial, ignorant, and unweighing fellow” (3.2.136) we know too well as the ‘old fantastical’ (4.3.156) author of the plays, has himself come to look, the closer we study his ‘cruel striking’ (3.2.260), less like a political paragon, and more and more like one of those with much that is suspect to hide, ‘[t]hough angel on the outward side’ (3.2.265).