- 1 Empson, 208.
- 2 Nosworthy and Briggs, 125. See, in particular, Martin, 174-182.
1As William Empson remarked in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), Measure for Measure has often been seen as “a Morality Play about the dialectic of Justice and Mercy, ending in an atonement won through love. On this view the Duke is implicitly compared to God, who goes among his people and judges each case on its individual merits; he is the king of love wooing the human heart […]”.1 It is therefore fitting that the Duke should disguise himself as a man of the church. Of course, there is another, more practical, consideration: by donning a poor friar’s cowl, in keeping with the topsy-turvy carnival themes of the play, he can hide his face and pass unseen. However it has also been noted that in the Duke’s homily to Claudio at the beginning of Act III, the “consolation he offers is classical and Stoic, rather than Christian”.2 If the Duke’s speech at this point of the play jars with his costume, might it not be a clue as to his true nature, the real Vincentio peeking, as it were, through his disguise? Who really lies behind the mask? After all, there is something decidedly un-Christian, even blasphemous, about assuming the prerogatives of a friar when one has not gone to the trouble of entering holy orders. And the malice with which he inflicts mental torture on all those he secretly intends to save can hardly be considered a Christian virtue (although it has been construed as a form of divine retribution, wringing contrition from guilty hearts).
2In Act III, then, Claudio has been condemned to death on a charge of extra-marital sex, a capital crime in Duke Vincentio’s Vienna, although it is Angelo, the Duke’s puritanical “substitute”, who is in fact responsible for reviving such a heinous law. The Duke has let it be known that he will be absent from the state for a while, and has invested Angelo with full powers. His real intention being to test Angelo’s nature, he masquerades as a friar, a disguise which has the added advantage of opening people’s hearts to him. It is in the role of (un-ordained) confessor that he now appears before Claudio in his prison cell.
3The theme of his exhortation to the prisoner is the fear of death. He uses the expression twice in his speech – “fear’st / Thy death (3.1.18-19), “yet death we fear” (3.1.40) –, and it is the main thrust of Claudio’s subsequent appeal to his sister Isabella: “Death is a fearful thing” (3.1.115); “The weariest and most loathèd worldly life […] is a paradise / To what we fear of death” (3.1.128-131). The Duke will neatly summarise his death-cell argument in Act 5, when he deliberately confirms Isabella in her belief that Claudio has been executed: “That life is better life, past fearing death, / Than that which lives to fear” (5.1.395-6). However, even though the Duke and Isabella both admonish Claudio for fearing death, the Provost despairs of another of his prisoners, Barnardine, precisely because he is “A man who apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come” (4.2.140-142). This is not so very far from the attitude which the Duke wishes to inculcate in Claudio:
Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok’st, yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more. (3.1.17-19)
4He makes no mention of the comforts of heaven nor does he exhort Claudio to repent his sins. In fact, Claudio is the only person in Act III who dwells upon the possibility of a life after death, albeit in “lawless and incertain” terms (3.1.126). Are we to assume that the Duke is less critical of Barnardine’s attitude than would first appear?
- 3 “That to Philosophise is to learn how to die”, Montaigne’s Essays. Translation by John Florio (155 (...)
5If L.C. Martin, Julia Briggs and J.M. Nosworthy, amongst others, are correct in ascribing Vincentio’s consolation speech to “classical and Stoic” sources, and if Measure for Measure was indeed written in 1604, there is a strong likelihood that Shakespeare drew some of his inspiration from that mine of Classical learning, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. John Florio had published his English translation of the French textonly a year before, in 1603. One of the most famous, if not the most famous of Montaigne’s Essays is none other than: “That to Philosophise is to learn how to die”, in which he undertakes “to teach us not to feare to die”.3 The title comes from Cicero, but the author most often quoted in this essay is Lucretius. Now Lucretius, despite being a Roman patrician and a contemporary of Cicero, was not a Stoic but an Epicurean.
6I should say straight away that this paper is part of a larger undertaking: an attempt to assess the degree of influence that Epicurean thought had on Shakespeare’s dramatic output. I have therefore adopted the following hypotheses: firstly, that Shakespeare could read Latin fluently, since Lucretius’ poem De rerum natura, the principal source of Epicurean philosophy at the Renaissance, had not yet been translated into English; and secondly that, even if Shakespeare never opened a copy of De rerum natura in his life, he did read the Essays of Montaigne. The Essays are a cento, a text largely woven out of Classical quotations, and the authors most often quoted are Horace and Lucretius. It is possible for example to piece together much of the 3rd book of De rerum natura from Montaigne’s borrowings. Shakespeare might well have been aware of this, because Florio accomplished the considerable editorial task of providing references for all of Montaigne’s quotations, as well as providing English verse translations for the passages in Latin. I hope to show that it was precisely the passages taken from Lucretius and, more generally, the essays inspired by Epicurean thought, which most interested Shakespeare. In the case of Measure for Measure, for instance, how might a “Lucretian” reading influence our way of appraising “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.156)?
7I am going to examine the Duke’s prison speech in some detail, because his recommendations to “Reason thus with life” (3.1.6) recall “the good precepts of our universall mother Nature” by which Montaigne closes his essay, and which are none other than a reworking of the prosopopoeia of Nature at the end of Book III of De rerum natura. According to Montaigne, “A man should ever, as much as in him lieth, be ready booted to take his journey […]”; likewise, the Duke enjoins Claudio to “Be absolute for death” (3.1.5). As regards “the contempt of life”, Montaigne remarks that “Discourse of reason doth […] call and summon us unto it. For why should we feare to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be moaned?” Hence, Claudio is to “reason thus with life”:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep. A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences
That dost this habitation where thou keep’st
Hourly afflict. (3.1.7-11)
- 4 The translations are my own.
8Admittedly, this can be construed as an allusion to Genesis 2.17 “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. However, Lucretius also uses the same word, anima, for the soul and for breath: “plena animae vesicula parua” (6.130) is “a small bladder full of air”, for example.4 In Book III of his poem, he describes the quadruple nature of the soul as a mixture of heat (vapor, calor), wind (ventus, aura), air (aer) and a nameless quarta natura responsible for initiating sensitive movement (sensiferos motus). Claudio will refer to his life in similar terms: “This sensible warm motion” (3.1.119). The “skyey influences” might well be an allusion to the astrological influence of the planets; but they could also refer to the quantity of airborne germs (semina) which, according to Lucretius, spread disease and death. “When these congregate by chance and perturb the sky (perturbarunt caelum), the air becomes morbid. And all this power of disease and plague (uis omnis morborum pestilitasque) comes from outside (extrinsecus) like clouds and fog falling from the sky (per caelum)” (4.1096-1100).
9The Duke’s following remonstrance – “Merely thou art death’s fool, / For him thou labour’st by thy flight to shun, / And yet runn’st toward him still” (3.1.11-13) – is a typically Shakespearean variation on Montaigne’s “be you either a coward or a runaway, an honest or valiant man, [he] overtakes you”. In Book III of the De rerum natura, Lucretius exhorts his reader to recognise that he in fact leads a dead life (mortua uita), “you who spend most of your time asleep, and still snore when awake (et uigilans stertis)” (3.1046-48). The Duke, still reasoning with life, is of the same opinion:
Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok’st, yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more (3.1.17-19)
10Having evoked the state of sleep, Lucretius concludes, in lines quoted by Montaigne and translated by Florio, that “Death is much less to us, we ought esteeme, / If lesse may be, than what doth nothing seeme” (3.926-27). Isabella will use exactly the same expression when denouncing Angelo as an “arch-villain”: “If he be less he’s nothing” (5.1.61).
11 For those who are not yet convinced, there is what I take to be a direct reference to Epicurean physics in the Duke’s next admonition:
Thou art not thyself,
For thou exist’st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. (3.1.19-21)
12Granted, there are the biblical echoes I have just mentioned: Genesis 2.17 or 3.19, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”; and similar allusions can be found in Job, The Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and of course the Anglican burial service. However the insistence on the “many a thousand grains” is not Biblical but Lucretian. At no point in the De rerum natura does Lucretius employ the word atomi to designate the atoms from which, according to Epicurean philosophy, everything that exists is composed. The word most often used by Lucretius to designate these ultimate corpuscles of matter is semen, seminis: the semina rerum are the seeds of things, the grains out of which we are made. Even souls and gods are to be understood as being composed of grains of matter, which is why they are not immortal. Technically only atoms (and the infinite void in which they move) exist for ever, as they cannot be broken down any further. Our being is therefore far from being unique, united, unified, in-dividual. The only real individua in the universe are the atoms themselves, the Latin word being an exact transcription of the Greek term a-tomos, “indivisible”. Our being is in reality a kind of node or vortex from which and to which atoms are constantly flowing. Likewise, the image of dust (pulvis) is no less Lucretian than it is Biblical. One has only to think of the famous passage in which the Latin poet describes motes of dust dancing in the sunlight in order to convey an image of the microscopic world of atomic movement (2.114-141).
13What we have here is an example of the difficulties of Shakespearean commentary. No-one, I suppose, would deny the presence of a Biblical inter-text in these lines. But the case for an atomic inter-text seems to me equally strong. In doctrinal terms, these two references are mutually exclusive, for ancient atomism does not allow for divine intervention in the affairs of the world (nor for that matter in its creation), but such is the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s composition that both references remain as possibilities. If I have set myself the task of unravelling the atomist thread, it does not mean that I am suggesting that the Evangelical reading is somehow wrong or spurious. There is a tension between the two.
14The Duke continues: “Happy thou art not, / For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get, / And what thou hast, forget’st” (3.1.21-23). In the De rerum natura, Nature upbraids us in similar terms: “you always want what you don’t have and despise what you’ve got” (semper aues quod abest, praesentia temnis) (3.957). “As long as an object escapes us”, writes Lucretius, “it seems preferable to everything else, but when we have got it, our desire turns immediately towards another” (3.1082-84). The argument, “Thou hast nor youth nor age, / But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep / Dreaming on both” (3.1.32-34), is an elaboration on Montaigne’s lament on the death of youth, “which in essence and veritie is a harder death, than that of a languishing and irkesome life, or that of age.”
15The Duke concludes: “[…] in this life / Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear / That makes these odds all even” (3.1.39-41). Likewise, Montaigne: “but also, since we are threatened by so many kinds of death, [is there not] more inconvenience to feare them all, than to endure one: what matter is it when it commeth, since it is unavoidable? […] What fondnesse is it to carke and care so much, at that instant and passage from all exemption of paine and care?” And he goes on to quote Epicurus’ maxim on death: “Nor alive, nor dead, it doth concern you nothing. Alive because you are: Dead, because you are no more”. “Nil igitur mors est ad nos”, writes Lucretius, “Death is nothing as far as we are concerned” – provided, that is, that we accept that the anima cannot survive the body, which is precisely what the previous lines of the 3rd Book have established, by mustering no less than 29 proofs in favour of the mortality of the soul. When “that subtle knot which makes us man” is undone, nothing can befall us (accidere) nor move our senses (sensum mouere), even if sea, sky and earth were to crumble into one another (4.838-42). What difference is it then to us whether we “roast in flames, suffocate in honey or stiffen from cold (rigere frigore) under the freezing slab of the tomb where we lie, or are crushed under the weight of earth piled on top of us” (4.890-93). From this point of view, Claudio is foolish to bewail the prospect of having “To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot”, or “to become/ A kneaded clod” (3.1.118-120).
16Claudio’s desperate appeal to his sister is reminiscent of several passages from the De rerum natura, as if to highlight the absurdity of his fear. What if the “dilated spirit [were] / To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside / In thrilling region of thick-ribbèd ice”? Is Shakespeare really evoking Hell or Purgatory here? Admittedly, “To be imprisoned in the viewless winds, / And blown with restless violence round about / The pendent world” (3.1.123-125) does evoke the post mortem condition of Dante’s ill-fated lovers, Paolo and Francesca, but it could also refer to “the viewless power of wind” (uenti caeca potestas) (3.279) celebrated by Lucretius in many places of his poem, and it is to be noted that Claudio mentions this “pendant world” and not the world to come. According to Epicurean lore, at death the dilated spirit (animus) will indeed dissolve into its constituent atoms and be scattered among the elements of the universe, but of course it will have thereby lost all power of thought and feeling. The only definite reference to Hell or Purgatory in Claudio’s speech is couched in very strange terms: “to be worse than worst / Of those that lawless and incertain thought / Imagine howling” (3.1.125-127). Why qualify the most conventionally religious idea of the speech as “lawless and incertain”? Is it merely because Anglican doctrine eschews Purgatory? Or is it because Lucretius refuses the possibility of life after death? “All the torments located in the infernal pit by religious belief are in reality to be found in this life”, he writes in the 3rd Book (3.978-94). Isabella herself, a budding nun, claims that “The sense of death is most in apprehension, / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies” (3.1.76-79). According to Montaigne and the Epicureans, if we were able to overcome our fear of death, pain and divine retribution, we would live like gods. Our soul would then be able to boast, “(which is a thing exceeding humane condition) […] that it is impossible unquietnesse, torment, and feare, much lesse the least displeasure should lodge in her.” And Montaigne concludes, “Herein consists the true and soveraigne liberty, that affords us meanes wherewith to jeast and make a scorne of force and injustice, and to deride imprisonment, gives, or fetters.”
17So then, might not Shakespeare have given his Viennese duke an Epicurean rather than an Evangelical frame of mind? Certain traits of his character could lead us to think so, although of course we can never be sure if his apparent sincerity is not simply a tactical ploy. The Epicureans distinguished themselves from their Stoical counterparts by espousing a quiet life, far from the turmoil of political action. Not for nothing did Epicurus call his school “The Garden” and advise his disciples to “live in hiding” (lathe biôsas). The Duke, likewise, has “ever loved the life removed, / And held in idle price to haunt assemblies / Where youth and cost a witless bravery keeps” (1.3.8-10). His attitude towards the passion of love is also eminently Epicurean. He tells the Friar to whom he confides his intention of remaining in the city under a false identity, “No, holy father, throw away that thought. / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom” (1.3.1-3). Here, the allusion to Cupid’s dart identifies the type of love to which the Duke claims to be immune as being specifically erotic (as opposed to philia, “friendship” or agapè, “charity”). Contrary to what centuries of anti-Epicurean propaganda have led us to believe, Epicurus was not a great proponent of the sexual act. Admittedly, his biographer Diogenes Laertius tells us that Epicurus could not conceive of life without sexual pleasure, but also reports him as saying: “the sexual act has never done anyone any good, and we should count ourselves lucky if it doesn’t do any actual harm”. In the essay, “That to Philosophise is to learn how to die”, Montaigne includes in his list of those who “[ended] their daies betweens womens thighs” a certain “Lodowike, sonne of Guido Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua.” Need I add that Lodowick is the name that the Duke chooses for his disguise?
18In the opening paragraph of his essay, Montaigne espouses the foremost ethical principle of Epicurean philosophy “that pleasure is our end.” He taunts more ascetically inclined philosophers with the word that Lucretius celebrates in the first line of his poem, voluptas: “[…] in vertue it selfe, the last scope of our aime is voluptuousnes. It pleaseth me to importune their eares still with this word, which so much offends their hearing. And if it imply any chief pleasure or exceeding contentment, it is rather due to the assistance of vertue, than to any […] other supply, voluptuousnes being more strong, sinnowie, sturdie, and manly, is but more seriously voluptuous.” The principal benefit of virtue is “the contempt of death […], a meane that furnisheth our life with an ease-full tranquillitie and gives us a pure and amiable taste of it: without which every other voluptuousnes is extinguished.” The latter remark refers in particular to sexual pleasure: “this baser sensuality […] is more fleeting, momentarie, and fading, she hath her fasts, her eves and her travels, and both sweat and bloud. Furthermore she hath particularly so many wounding passions, and of so severall sorts, and so filthie and loathsome a societie [Montaigne wrote “satieté”] waiting upon her, that shee is equivalent to penitencie.” One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129.
19Have we misunderstood Epicurus, then? Was he as abstemious as a Catholic monk? Such an attitude can seem surprising on the part of a philosopher who elected pleasure as the sovereign good. But Epicurus’ quarrel with erotic pleasure, like Montaigne’s, was precisely that it was too often the cause of displeasure. This is best understood by referring to the closing section of Book IV of De rerum natura, much quoted by Montaigne in his Essais. Lucretius does not condemn sexual pleasure per se, otherwise why would he have chosen to open his poem with a hymn to Venus, hominum divomque voluptas (1.1), “the delight of gods and men”? What he does condemn however is erotic passion and in particular the illusion that whoever has aroused your desire is the only person capable of assuaging it. That this is an illusion bred of “love melancholy” is amply borne out by the Duke’s bed-trick: Angelo thinks only Isabella can satisfy his recently awakened sexual urge; however the fact that he does not notice that Mariana has replaced Isabella in his secret garden bower proves the contrary.
20Love, then, is a source of numerous displeasures. It drastically reduces your personal autonomy, because your happiness depends on the will of another. Only those who are impervious to love can boast of having “a complete bosom” (1.3.3). When the beloved is absent, the lover experiences jealousy and “chilling concern”, frigida cura (4.1060); when he or she is present, the dolor previously felt is liable to change into a kind of furor which adulterates the pleasure of the sexual act itself: “Whomever they have been striving after, they clasp tight and hurt their bodies, and with their teeth they often tear their lips and maul them with kisses; this is because their pleasure is not pure, it stings them into hurting precisely those beings, whoever they are, from whom these germs of fury have arisen” (4.1079-83). They give the impression of wanting to devour their lover, mutual absorption being the most radical form of bodily union. In vain, however, “quoniam nihil inde abradere possunt,/ nec penetrare et abire in corpus corpore toto” (4.1110-11): “they cannot rip anything out of, or penetrate and pass completely into the other body”.
21Unfortunately, the sexual urge is not the same as the appetite for food and drink. The lover has only visual images (simulacra) with which to satisfy his hunger:
Ex hominis vero facie pulchroque colore
nil datur in corpus praeter simulacra fruendum
tenuia, quae uento spes raptast saepe misella” (4.1094-96)
22“But, from a lovely face and a blooming complexion nothing penetrates our body to be enjoyed except flimsy idol-images, a sorry hope which often the winds disperse”. Which is why the sexual appetite is insatiable, and lajouissance impossible; “and it’s the only case”, Lucretius wryly observes, “in which the more we possess, the more our heart burns with a disastrous desire” (4.1089-90). The lover resembles a man asleep dying of thirst and who only drinks in his dreams.
23That is why we should flee such simulacra: “Sed fugitare decet simulacra […] atque alio convertere mentem” (4.1063-64). Lucretius exhorts lovers not only to turn their minds elsewhere, but also to eject their seminal fluid into whatever body is at hand (et iacere umorem coniectum in corpora quaeque), rather than retain it (nec retinere), “forever devoted / to a single love” (semel conversum unius amore). Epicurean love therapy comprises two solutions: “either you confide your wounds, while still fresh, to the care of volgivaga Venus [the transposition into Latin of Aphrodite Pandemos, the common Venus]; or you should try to deflect your mind (animi traducere motus) and direct your attention elsewhere” (4.1071-72). The meaning of vaga here is “fickle, inconstant, flighty, unfaithful”. Lucretius is arguing for inconstancy and infidelity in matters of the heart. A slave, a prostitute, will do nicely. The “one night stand” is preferable to the exaltation of love. And just as the girl should be vaga, you should be vagus, a vagabond of the heart, and abandon yourself to chance encounters, thereby behaving like an atom. Hence, those who avoid love do not necessarily deprive themselves of the fruits of Venus: “Nec Veneris fructu caret is qui vitat amorem” (4.1073); on the contrary, their pleasure will be all the purer. This is where the Epicureans part company with Saint Paul. But do they with Shakespeare?
24Angelo, as “one who never feels / The wanton stings and motions of the sense, / But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge / With profits of the mind, study, and fast” (1.4.58-61), would seem to have adopted the second solution, Lucio and his fellow gentlemen the first. But Angelo’s incapacity to suppress the sexual urge, and the perverse forms that it adopts when thus thwarted, go to show that it is better off indulged. Prostitution is one of the major themes of Measure for Measure and we would be wrong to think that Shakespeare necessarily considers it as an evil. And yet, according to the economy of the play, the sexual act has one of three consequences: death (thanks to the severity of Viennese law), disease (given the numerous allusions to syphilis) and childbirth. This last possibility is obviously the least dreadful of the three, and Lucio refers to Juliet’s pregnancy in terms of natural fertility:
[…] as blossoming time
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry (1.4.41-44).
25The analogy between sexual and agricultural procedures is commonplace, but it is also to be found in a passage of the De rerum natura quoted by Montaigne (471): “By dislodging the ploughshare (vomer), [the overly energetic sexual partner] causes the furrow (sulcus) to deviate, so that the male seed (semen) misses the place (locus)” (4.1272-73). This is a practice favoured by prostitutes, Lucretius tells us, pregnancy being a handicap in their profession, as Mistress Kate Keepdown finds out to her cost (3.2.192-93).
26Pleasure should not be condemned. It is impure passion that sullies lust, not the act itself. The celibate Duke intends to marry Isabella, rather than let her continue a virgin and pine away in “green and yellow melancholy”. And he obliges Lucio to marry Kate, the prostitute Lucio himself had got with child. All things considered, sexual fecundity is preferable not only to the puritanical and vestal abstinence of convents, but also to the sterility and contagion of brothels. Although he advocates sexual inconstancy in order to escape the delusions of erotic passion, Lucretius does not condemn marriage or conjugal life in the slightest. Indeed, another type of love is possible, more tranquil, less tempestuous, the kind which emerges from living together, and which is nevertheless able to overcome the most obdurate resistance: “Custom (consuetudo) is the bed of love; for a thing which receives only a slight blow, from the moment that the blow is repeated, finishes by being vanquished and gives way” (4.1283-85). Perhaps Isabella and the Duke, Mariana and Angelo, Claudio and Juliet, and even Kate and Lucio will live happily together, after all.