Game-playing in William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

by Tannistho Ghosh

Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves

Critics have often seen Vincentio, the Duke in Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure, as performing a function similar to that of Prospero in The Tempest. The reasons for such an assumption is clear in the very first scene of the play, as both characters set the plot into motion by exercising their power, withdraw to observe events from behind the scenes, then return to restore order at the end.

The Duke, seeing that the city of Vienna has degenerated and is desperately in need of reform, decides to remove himself from the post for a period so that his successor Angelo can rectify the problems, even though those problems were created and nurtured by the over-indulgence of the Duke himself. The Duke is practical, he is aware that a sudden strict application of the law might destroy or tarnish the legendary reputation that he has built up for himself. His purpose is made clear when he says to Friar Thomas;

Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them; for we bid this be done,
When evil deeds have their permissive pass
And not the punishment. Therefore, indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo imposed the office,
Who may, in th'ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander. [Act I Scene iii]

Thus Lord Angelo, who subsequently misuses the power that has been bestowed on him, is initially set up to be a scapegoat; someone who has to drive the nail in, a task the Duke evades, fearing the loss of his subjects' good will.

From this opening, the plot can, in my view, be seen in terms of game-playing, with the Duke, the supreme master of the game, having the reins in his hand. It is the Duke who sets things up and later, disguised as a friar, visits Vienna to keep an eye on the progress of his plan.

But the Duke's plan to reform society fails, and at the end he has to resort to his second plan of revealing himself and restoring order once more, to save his reputation. What the Duke does not take into account, although he perceives that Viennese society has been eaten up from within, is that the law-keeper he appoints may be a part of the rotten society, rather than someone with a missionary zeal. As a result, after a certain point, the game which the Duke had chalked out starts devising its own rules, and the Duke himself becomes merely a pawn in the larger scheme of things.

The term 'problem play' has often been applied to Measure for Measure. F. S. Boas coined the term in his book Shakespeare and his Predecessors (1968), where he found four of Shakespeare's plays which presented a society sophisticated, artificial, rotten-ripe, in which 'abnormal' conditions of mind arose and 'intricate cases of conscience' demanded 'unprecedented methods of solution'. The four plays that Boas had in mind were: All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet. According to Boas these plays dealt with the problem of a rotten, degraded, degenerate society, and the fifth act adjustments were no real solution to the problems they had posed.

Perceiving an Ibsenite touch in the 'problem plays' of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant assumed that Shakespeare would have been Ibsen if he'd had the chance;

Shakespeare . . . has left us no intellectually coherent drama, and could not afford to pursue a genuinely scientific method in his studies of character and society, though in such unpopular plays as All's Well, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida, we find him ready and willing to start at the twentieth century if the seventeenth century would only let him.

The term 'problem play' came finally to be applied to Measure for Measure in 1931, when Professor W. W. Lawrence of Columbia University described these plays under the heading of 'Shakespeare's Problem Comedies'. By using the word 'comedies', Lawrence had excluded Hamlet from the category.

In my view, the real problem at the heart of Measure for Measure is the problem-ridden society. The Duke's plan to reform society turns against itself when the supposed agent of justice betrays it because of the degeneration within him. The agent too is a part of society, and the degeneration has seeped into his veins, and the play moves between two extremes: love that is characterised by lust and power, and death, the final end.

Angelo, blinded by power and driven by lust, offers a choice to Isabella - either to yield to his passions or to watch the beheading of her brother Claudio;

Admit no other way to save his life -
As I subscribe not that, nor any other,
But in the loss of question - that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-binding law, and that there were
No earthly mean to save him, but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else let him suffer:
What would you do? [Act II, Scene iv]

At this point the power-play shifts to Angelo, who starts building up his own game strategy in the framework provided by the Duke. The very fact that he is in a position to command and has been bestowed authority that he believes he can misuse, makes him, though temporarily, the master of the game.

Isabella, torn between the prospects of Claudio's death, or the eternal damnation of her own soul, has to resort to the Duke for another strategy by which she can save her brother without having to lose her honour.

In the process Mariana, who appears to love Angelo in spite of his 'pernicious purpose', is substituted for Isabella. Angelo, who has been given check by the Duke, is unaware of the substitution until everything is revealed in the end. The Duke approaches methodically, substituting Isabella with Mariana, and Claudio by a dead criminal, but what surprises us is the risk he takes in order to bring his game to a suitable if not a grand finale. The plot is unnecessarily prolonged. The Duke could have revealed himself earlier. At any point during the play he could have thrown off his garb of the friar and declared himself. What surprises us is that he does not do so, he advances methodically and plans his strategy with meticulous detail. Thus the provost is ordered to behead Bernardine instead of Claudio and his head to be disguised as Claudio's and shown to Angelo. And in the course of the play we remain painfully aware that a wrong move on the Duke's part may cost Claudio his life. It is power-play that guides Measure for Measure, and it assumes the structure of a card game where the trump card changes hands swiftly.

Umberto Eco, while discussing Ian Fleming's narrative in his book The Role of the Reader, said that there are certain signs by which a James Bond novel can be identified. All the Bond novels, according to Eco, follow a certain game-like structure, which is familiar to the reader, and this familiarity accounts for the immense popularity of the Bond stories. The reader, the moment he starts the first chapter, becomes aware of the 'scheme of things', as there are certain 'signifiers' in the novel which have their counterpart 'signifieds' in the mind of the reader, that are shaped by his reading of Bond stories. Eco says, 'The novel, given the rules of combination of oppositional couples, is fixed as a sequence of 'moves' inspired by the code and constituted according to a perfectly prearranged scheme.'

The scheme Eco provides is somewhat like this -

A. M moves and gives task to Bond.

B. Villain moves and appears to Bond (perhaps in vicarious form)

C. Bond moves and gives first check to villain or villain gives first check to Bond:

D. Woman moves and shows herself to Bond.

E. Bond takes Woman

F. Villain captures Bond (with or without woman)

G. Villain tortures Bond (with or without woman)

H. Bond kills Villain (or kills his associates, as the supreme villain in Bond's novels is the Russian organisation SMERSH.)

I. Bond, convalescing, enjoys Woman, whom he then loses.

Such a structure characterizes a James Bond novel, and even if in a novel like From Russia with Love James Bond dies at the end, the reader is aware that he will return, as immaculate and active as ever, in his next adventure.

In my view a similar game-like structure can be discerned in Measure for Measure, largely because Shakespeare was writing a comedy, and had to provide, even if forced to do so, a happy ending. Thus in this play we find a certain scheme of things similar to that of a game. We can show a structure similar to Eco's model of James Bond stories:

A. Duke bestows power on Angelo

B. Angelo gives first check to the Duke by arresting Claudio and making known his pernicious purpose to Isabella.

C. Duke gives check to Angelo by substituting Isabella with Mariana.

D. Angelo again gives check to Isabella and the Duke's strategy by ordering Claudio's death.

E. Duke outwits Angelo by substituting Claudio by another prisoner.

F. The Duke reveals himself and Angelo is punished for his crimes. Duke proposes to Isabella

Thus the main plot of the play can be seen as assuming a game-like structure, and the advances of the comic villain Angelo are repeatedly checked by the Duke. But the 'problem' remains in spite of the strained resolution. It is imperative, according to the rules of comedy, that the villain has to pay for his crime, and so he does. But what would have happened if he had succeeded, or if the Duke in order to satisfy the structure of his game had failed to save Claudio? The alternatives seem gruesome.

The game has power at its base and we have two principal players - the Duke and Angelo. It also concentrates on the changes brought about by the shifting of power. Angelo, for example, having vowed to serve the law, moves away from his purpose the moment he sees Isabella, and in Act II, Scene ii, he reflects upon his situation;

Is this her fault, or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. [Act II, Scene ii]

And later, showing his awareness of the absence of firm moral standards, he says,

Oh, let her brother live:
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves.

The power of his position also comes into play when Isabella threatens to expose him. He answers, asserting his position,

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, the austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i'th' state,
Will so your accusation overwigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. [Act II, Scene iv]

Later we find the Duke exercising his own authority to outwit Angelo by defeating him in his own game and pardoning him.

Just as Angelo has the power to punish, the Duke has the power to pardon, and this seems to be the only moral that Measure for Measure conveys. The problem of the corrupt society remains unresolved. In this context it can still be called a 'problem' play, because the play does not satisfy the problems outlined in the exposition. But if it is seen as a game with the society only as a backdrop then it seems understandable that Shakespeare did not attempt to settle the troubles that beset the society.

Boas, F. S. Shakespeare and His Predecessors. 1968
Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts. 1984
Lawrence, Professor W. W. Shakespeare's Problem Comedies. 1931
Shaw, George Bernard. preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. 1922

© Tannistho Ghosh, October 2002
See Tannistho Ghosh's blog: The Spirit of Ferdinand

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See also: British and Irish drama on film >

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