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Themes of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Revealed in Angelo’s Soliloquies

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Themes of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Revealed in Angelo’s Soliloquies


Angelo’s soliloquies (2.2.161-186; 2.4.1-30) express themes of the tragicomic form, grace and nature, development of self-knowledge, justice and mercy, and creation and death as aspects of Angelo’s character.

By the theme of the tragicomic form I mean that which “qualified extremes and promoted a balanced condition of mind […] It employed a ‘mixed’ style, ‘mixed’ action, and ‘mixed’ characters—‘passing from side to side, it works amongst contraries, sweetly tempering their composition’.” (Guarini’s Compendio della Poesia Tragicomica (1601) cited in Lever lxi-lxii). I take Measure for Measure’s tragicomic form as its major theme, or perhaps meta-theme, because it reinforces the value of the via media, of moderation over zealotry. Angelo swings from one extreme to the other before, by the play’s conclusion, prompted by the orchestrations of the duke, he adopts a middle way. In Angelo’s first two soliloquies we see him transition from believing himself immune to earthly love (2.3.185-186) to believing he is ruled by his blood (2.4.15).

This transition suggests a theme of development of self-knowledge. In the first soliloquy Angelo refers to himself as a saint (2.2.179) and speaks of physical love in a condemning tone (2.2.173). In the second soliloquy Angelo has adjusted his self-image (2.4.16) to be consistent with his experience, and he describes his experience of love without spending equal time condemning it. He realizes he took sinful pride in his severity (2.4.9-10), and now compares that quality with an idle plume in a cap—an aspect of appearance, not being. Development of self-knowledge does not show up clearly in other characters however...


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...ing between them, was virtue. This signified a beneficent use of natural function which merited the gift of grace as a concomitant; correspondingly, it implied a ‘going forth’ of grace which might comprehend the conscientious payment of nature’s debt. […] Throughout the main action, however, the properties of grace and nature are dissociated and juxtaposed. ‘Strict restraint’ and ‘immoderate use’, the distorted attitudes of convent and brothel, of precisian and libertine, are presented as jarring disparates inducing a process of psychic disruption. In the absence of virtue as a moderator, sexual function turns into the abuse of lechery […] At the spiritual level, excessive zeal is corrupted to pride […] Most alarming of all, there are the sudden slips from level to level, landslides of the soul which transform zealot into lecher and saint into sadist. (lxxii-lxxiii)


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