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William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure Essay

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William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure


The desires of the characters in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure are not entirely clear, and are made ambivalent and ambiguous by the use of their language. Particularly in 3.1.52-153, when Isabella visits Claudio in prison, ambiguous lines and puns make it unclear whether Isabella desires Claudio’s death and whether he truly desires to be free of sin. These desires were further convoluted by viewing the current Folger Theatre production of the play.

"Trade" (151) is one pun which illuminates ideas about Claudio's desires. Taken to mean an exchange, Isabella insinuates that Claudio's sin and death are like the title of the play, a measure taken for a measure, or rather a punishment that fits the crime. However, Freud's notion of the compulsion to repeat is evoked when the word is taken to mean a habit. Isabella insinuates Claudio's perpetual sinning earlier when she comments that Claudio's freedom would "offend [Angelo] still" (99) by continuing his behavior. The concept of the death drive as a desire to return to the womb also emerges when Isabella warns Claudio that accepting Angelo's offer "Would bark your honour from that trunk you bear / And leave you naked" (70-71), the image of debarking a tree becoming a form of regression.

Claudio's response that he would "encounter darkness as a bride / And hug it in [his] arms" (82-3) is wholly ambivalent and ambiguous. It could be a straightforward admission to his desire for death, also showing that he readily accepts his punishment. Additionally falling under Freud's philosophy, it could instead be an admission of his compulsion to repeat: he would make love to death as his bride, just as he did to Juli...


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... truly became emotional during his 15 line speech about the uncertainty of death. He was spotlighted during this passage, making it more like a soliloquy and therefore more honest. The audience was privy to his real fear of death and his desire to live, but then his pathetic supplication on his knees made my desire for him to die increase.

What sin he refers to is of course unclear in the text as well as in the production, and literally holding that line above the characters’ heads made it even more uncertain who was truly the sinner: Claudio, Angelo, or Isabella? The audience was left feeling uncertain just as Claudio is about death, and Isabella is about her feelings towards whether her brother should die. Mostly this scene illuminates the universal desire for certainty, made even more apparent from the lighting change during Claudio’s soliloquy.


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