The Reading Room
The Duke’s Deceit in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure
In Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio of Vienna, disguised as a friar, succeeds in his aim to convince Mariana, the jilted fiancée of his self-righteous and hypocritical deputy Angelo, to trick Angelo into having sexual intercourse with her in a darkened room even as he thinks he is with the beautiful Franciscan novice Isabella.
The complexity of the larger situation and its backstory is manifold: The Duke, deceitfully announcing his departure for a diplomatic mission, has appointed Angelo to rule in his place. Angelo, enforcing a long-dormant statute prescribing the death penalty for fornication, then sentences Isabella’s brother, Claudio, to death for impregnating his fiancée, Juliet. When Isabella appears before Angelo to plead for Claudio’s life, Angelo becomes infatuated with her, telling her that he will spare Claudio if she offers “the treasures of [her] body” for his enjoyment (2.4.96), a proposition that horrifies Isabella, who calls fornication the “vice that most I do abhor” (2.2.32).
In the scene that follows Angelo’s indecent proposal, the Duke, disguised and eavesdropping on Isabella’s conversation with her jailed brother, hears Isabella tell Claudio of Angelo’s proposal and also her scornful rejection of Claudio’s pleas that she submit to Angelo for his sake. After she leaves Claudio, the Duke privately recruits her for a plan that, he says, will “not only save[ ]” Claudio but also “keep[ ]” Isabella “from dishonor in doing it” (3.1.238-39). The desperate Isabella tellingly replies, “Show me how, good Father” (3.1.240). The Duke presents his plan to her as a “win-win-win-win” situation in which, among other things, Mariana, still hopelessly in love with her erstwhile fiancé, might rightfully claim marriage to Angelo. Summing up to Isabella the wisdom of his plan, the Duke says: “And here, by this, is your brother saved, your honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled” (3.1.254-57). He continues: “The maid [Mariana] I will frame and make fit for his attempt. If you think well to carry this as you may the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof” (257-60).
The Duke’s above reference to Mariana as a “maid”—that is, a virgin—reveals just one of the various moral quandaries of his complex plot: that he will be seeking to convince Mariana to lay down her own virginity in the place of Isabella’s. Using his assumed spiritual authority as a friar, he assures Mariana that Angelo “is your husband on a precontract”; consequently, “To bring you [Mariana and Angelo] thus together, ‘tis no sin,” for “the justice of [Mariana’s] title to him / Doth flourish [“make fair”] the deceit” (4.1.71-74). Mariana does not question the Duke’s words, but readers may detect his appeal’s obvious incongruities. If having sexual intercourse with one’s betrothed is “no sin,” then why is Claudio being lawfully (albeit legalistically) punished with death for the same act? Moreover, as we learn later, the engagement between Angelo and Mariana “was broke off” some “five years” earlier (5.1.225, 224), so the Duke’s claim that Angelo is Mariana’s “husband on a precontract” is particularly dubious. It also appears that the Duke has been gaining the trust of the still-grieving and emotionally vulnerable Mariana for some time by serving as her spiritual advisor and confessor. When she tells him “I am always bound to you” (4.1.25), Mariana suggests an important relationship between them that precedes this specific meeting. That the Duke has developed this trust relationship under the pretense of his being a friar is problematic on several levels, including the fact that his presumed role as Mariana’s confessor is bereft of actual church authority and would be considered spiritually inefficacious. And then there is the matter of his emotional and spiritual manipulation of a vulnerable woman. We shall return presently to matters of the Duke’s machinations, but we may appropriately speculate that if the disguised Duke tells Mariana that the “justice” of her engagement to Angelo “flourish[es]” the “deceit” of his plan, he also reasons within himself that the justice of his machinations also flourishes the deceit of his impersonation of a friar.
We should also recognize that the Duke has directed Isabella to inform Mariana of Angelo’s proposition, and to explicitly propose the “bed trick” deception in which Angelo will have intercourse with Mariana while believing that she is Isabella. When the two women return from their conference, Isabella tells him that Mariana will “take the enterprise upon her, Father, / If you advise it”; to which the Duke replies, “It is not [only] my consent, / But my entreaty too” (4.1.65-67). The Duke’s words demonstrate his problematic spiritual authority over Mariana, but we ought also consider how his plan affects Isabella. Although, as we have seen above, he tells her that his plan leaves her “honor untainted,” he has actually instructed her to act as a madam, soliciting Mariana to satisfy Angelo’s lust. This matter is punctuated by Shakespeare’s developed depiction of Mistress Overdone and her brothel. Indeed, the scene immediately preceding Act 4, Scene 1 involves Vienna’s officials, upon Angelo’s orders, closing the brothel and arresting Mistress Overdone and her employee Pompey. During this scene, we learn that Overdone, her immoral profession notwithstanding, is a woman of some redeeming qualities, having housed and helped care for the baby of one of her prostitutes (see 3.2.196-97). The juxtaposition of these two scenes problematizes the seemingly obvious matter of the sexually corrupt Overdone as a foil to the chaste Isabella. Further to be considered is that, in the Catholic tradition as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, the sin of sexual pandering (practiced habitually by pimps and madams) is considered far more serious than general sexual immorality, with the panders being punished in the eighth circle of hell while the lustful are punished in the second circle, and mitigation can be offered to those who have been coerced into sexual relations in order to save the life of another. Shakespeare’s play addresses none of these matters directly, and yet the spiritual cost of his plan to the very women it ostensibly seeks to protect or empower is considerable.
In the play’s final scene, the Duke sheds his friar’s disguise, resumes his active rule over Vienna, exposes Angelo’s treachery, and pardons both Claudio and Angelo, commanding that they be married, respectively, to Juliet and Mariana. In his and the play’s concluding words, the Duke, having offered no previous romantic overtures, proposes marriage to Isabella (5.1.545-50). She speaks no response, but her consent is presumed, even as she has consented to his previous directions throughout the play. And so Shakespeare’s problem comedy ends with a happy turn of events for Claudio and Juliet, with Mariana’s marrying—the audience’s misgivings notwithstanding—the man she loves, with Angelo properly chastised and hopefully reformed, and with Isabella’s virginity intact as she leaves her order before taking final vows and begins her new vocation as the Duke’s wife. To borrow a phrase from another of Shakespeare’s problem comedies, all’s well that ends well, or so we might say. And yet for all the Duke’s previous rhetoric concerning the benefit that his plan would offer Claudio, Isabella, Mariana, and even the polis as a whole by dint of exposing a corrupt politician’s guilt, we are left wondering if perhaps the Duke’s elaborate scheme was intended solely for the benefit of the Duke himself, who, like Angelo, desired Isabella for himself but who, unlike his disgraced deputy, succeeded in his machinations to obtain her, however implicitly corrupting, as I have suggested above, his scheme may have been to her virtue. His plan was one of ingenious deceit, but, in light of his imminent marriage to Isabella, in his mind “the benefit” of his final claim upon her “defends the deceit from reproof.”