Abcs Of Stds a Measure For Measure
It has been said that men have two heads, but only enough blood to use one at a time. While it’s merely meant as a joke, the phrase holds truth in William Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure”. It takes place in Vienna where whorehouses are everywhere and the Duke will do nothing to stop the massive fornication. To save face, and to make sure the town is set on the right track, the Duke puts Angelo in charge. Angelo decrees that anyone caught fornicating will be executed and Claudio is the first one caught. These characters, plus a few others, are driven by sex. They all either want it or are repelled by it, but no one is safe from it.
Shakespeare establishes early on that Vienna has become a red district all over. When Pompey, a pimp, is told that hanging is the punishment for sex he tells Escalus “If you head and hang all that offend that / way but for ten year together, you’ll be glad to give / out a commission for more heads” (2.1.238-40). Pompey is making the point that sex is everywhere. Every man has a mistress, and more go to the whorehouses. If Angelo plans to behead every man who sleeps around, then there will be no one left. The point is made again later when Pompey visits the jail. He says “I am as well acquainted here as I was in our / house of profession: one would think it were Mis- / tress Overdone’s own house, for here be many of / her old customers” (4.3.1-4). It is now incredibly obvious just how much sex and prostitution was playing a role in Vienna. When the pimp knows every man in the prison as a customer, it stands to reason that every low life in town involves themselves with prostitutes, but they are not the only ones involved.
When the Duke realizes that Vienna has gone to the bawds, he gives power over to Angelo, telling him: “In our remove be thou at full ourself” (1.1.43). Angelo, according to the Duke is “A man of stricture and firm abstinence” (1.3.12). Logically, he is the best man to take over and fix the problems of Vienna. Angelo decides that anyone caught illegally fornicating will be hanged as punishment, and he is strict in his policy. When Claudio is caught, everyone reasons with him to be fair, but he will not relent. It is not until Isabella shows up that Angelo’s hypocrisy comes into play.
Isabella becomes the kryptonite to Angelo’s sanctity. After his first encounter with Isabella, Angelo says, “What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine? / The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” (2.2.162,63). He is smitten with her, and lusts after her. “What,” he says, “do I love her, / That I desire to hear her speak again, / and feast upon her eyes?” (2.3.176-78). This is a new feeling for him, however, and he’s not sure how to react. He’s not even sure if it’s his own fault for feeling that way, or if it’s Isabella’s faults for making him feel that way. He also believes that Isabella is the only one who can tempt him. “O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook!” (2.3.179,80).
Angelo’s sexual desires would have been fine if he did not act on them. He invites Isabella back to see him, and during their get-together he makes numerous advances. He implores to Isabella, “Might there not be a charity in sin / To save this brother’s life?” (2.4.63,64). Isabella continues to turn him down, but Angelo persists. He even goes so far as to blurt out “Plainly conceive, I love you” (2.4.141). When Isabella continues to deny his advances, Angelo becomes belligerent. “redeem thy brother / By yielding up thy body to my will, / Or else he must not only die the death, / But thy unkindness shall his death draw out / To ling’ring sufferance” (2.4.163-67). It is clear that Angelo’s abstinence means nothing in the presence of Isabella. When once Escalus and the Duke considered Angelo an upstanding citizen, he now becomes a “hypocrite, a virgin-violator” (5.1.41).
When Angelo’s laws go into action, the results come quickly. Claudio impregnated his fiancÃ©e before their marriage, so he was sentenced to death. Lucio finds Claudio in restraints and asks him what happened. Claudio’s response is “Our nature do pursue, / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die” (1.2.131-33). Claudio is making the point that it’s in our nature to have sex, and much like any animal gets attracted to what is most harmful, he, too, must die for his deeds.
Claudio doesn’t see the harm in sex, only in the results. He repents for his actions, and accepts his death, but tries to convince his sister, Isabella to sleep with Angelo in order to save him. He tells her “What sin you do to save a brother’s life, / Nature dispenses with the deed so far / That it becomes a virtue” (3.1.134-36). Claudio is trying to convince Isabella, who is about to become a nun, that sex is perfectly all right as long as it’s for the right cause. His motivations are clearly driven by sex. He is about to die because he had premarital sex, and he’s trying to save himself by convincing his sister, the nun, to sleep with Angelo.
Isabella is also defined by sex. When the audience first sees her, it becomes known that she is about to become a nun. Her role as a nun is sexually significant because of what it represents. Probably the most well known aspect about being a nun is the chastity. Nuns live without ever knowing the pleasure of sexual intercourse, and Isabella is no exception. Throwing this character into Vienna, an oversexed city, is like bringing a priest into a brothel (a very real possibility in this city). Her chastity is incredibly important to her though. She puts off Angelo’s advances saying, “Th’ impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame” (2.4.101-04). Isabella obviously considers her virginity a significant quality and would rather be failed, beaten, and killed than give it up. She’s even willing to allow Claudio to die before she gives herself up. Isabella’s motives are driven by her brother’s mistake of fornicating before marriage, and her only way of saving him is through relations with Angelo, which is the last thing she is willing to do.
Lucio, who is described as a “fantastic” is an eternal bachelor who sleeps around a lot. During his first appearance to the audience, he is discussing venereal diseases. When he sees Mistress Overdone (a character who’s name implies that she is over sexed) he says “I have purchased as many diseases under / her roof as come to / Judge” (1.2.46,47,49). Lucio even has a bastard child whom he denied in front of the Duke. However, when talking to the disguised Duke, he admits it: “I was fain to forswear / it: they would else have married me to the rotten / medlar” (4.4.174-76). Lucio likes having sex with an abundance of whores and is willing to go as far as lying to the Duke in order to avoid marriage and continue his bachelorhood.
Lucio’s views on sex seem to define his character. He is completely enraged at Claudio’s arrest, and the news of it knocks him out of his jovial mood: “But, after all this fooling, I would not have it / so” (1.2.71,72). Even his language is affected by sex. When Lucio goes to Isabella, he addresses her as a “virgin” because she is a nun. It becomes clear that he is constantly thinking about sex.
The Duke tries to make himself out to be the one person free from all of this mess. He leases his power to Angelo, so that the people would not see him as a tyrant. He says to Angelo, “I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes” (1.1.66,67). The Duke essentially wimps out from handling his duty. Vienna is rampant with whores and he’s taking a vacation so the people don’t get mad at him for cleaning it up.
Instead of going away like he said he would, the Duke disguises himself as a friar, which is also significant for being a profession with a vow of chastity. According to Lucio’s accusations, the Duke cannot be compared to Isabella in that sense. Lucio says of the Duke, “he’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” (4.4.164). The Duke is therefore as much at fault as any one else in Vienna, and should’ve done his job.
Shakespeare’s Vienna in “Measure for Measure” is driven completely by sex. Every character gets sucked into the underbelly, because the city is so filled with bawds and whores. Not a single person is free, and is either attached directly or indirectly to a sexual misdeed. This play exemplifies the characters that get involved when this happens. The man whore, the chaste villain, the unfit ruler, and the sanctimonious nun are among the citizens that get sucked into the world of sex.