Saturday, April 24, 2010

Peter Lake, The Anti-Christ's Lewd Hat

Peter Lake with Michael Questier, The Anti-Christ’s Lewd Hat; Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002.

Attached to what Eamon Duffy has since characterized as the ‘traditional religion’ of the late Middle Ages—a religion of priestly and saintly intercession, of ritual performance and practice—the bulk of the population responded to Protestantism with a mixture of sullen indifference and hostility, or so Scarisbrick and Haigh have argued. (xiv)

Moreover, other social historians have argued that, as the English reformation entered its second phase and Protestantism made gains among scattered groups of literate lay people, the values of perfect Protestantism came to be allied with the cause of social order and moral discipline. Acting alongside various processes of social and economic differentiation, which during this period were dividing many English villages between established householders, yeoman farmers and the poor, such commentators see the spread of protestant or puritan values as serving to effect a division between the literate, prosperous middling sort and their humbler, poorer neighbours. Zealously protestant or puritan religion thus became a means of defining and self-consciously respectable ruling elites in town and country and of controlling the behavior (and misbehavior) of the social groups at or near the bottom of the social order. There resulted a clash between, on the one hand, the culture of ‘the godly’ (a.k.a. the puritans)—sober, pious, word-and sermon-centered—and, on the other, a residual popular culture, centered on the alehouse and village green, where what remained of the traditional forms of popular recreation and affirmations of social unity and solidarity were acted out. (xv)

In short, a clean break was effected between the protestant and the popular; perfect Protestantism was an entity external to ‘English folk’ (the phrase is Jack Scarisbrick’s, an affectation recently appropriated for similarly faux-populist purposes by Christopher Marsh), unpopular, even ‘unnatural’, which had to be imposed upon an unwilling and recalcitrant populace (in Haigh’s phrase) ‘slowly, from above.’ (xv)

Where, then, did that leave the mass of the population? In Haigh’s terms it left them ‘catholic’… Admittedly, at some point after 1559 ‘the people were taught to hate the pope, despise “superstition” and think of Catholicism as a nasty foreign religion.’ (xv)

…on Haigh’s vies, the true nature of the religion of the people after 1559 is best recovered from the descriptions given of it in the puritan complaint literature produced by ministers like George Gifford, Josias Nichols and Richard Greenham and from accounts of opposition to puritan attempts to cut down maypoles and suppress a variety of popular festivities. … If we adopt these men’s point of observation and terms of analysis many of the people were indeed ‘catholic’. If we shift the terms of the debate, of course, they were not. (xvi)

…there was a good deal of stuff, of narrative forms and expectation, images and tropes, that the protestant godly could appeal to and appropriate for their own evangelical purposes. Moreover, in so doing, they were called not to play down so much as to accentuate and apply what revisionists took to be the most counter-intuitive and off-putting of their doctrines—predestination and providence. (xvii)

some of the accounts of the gruesome deaths of catholic priests on the scaffold, I realized that it was the catholic rather than the protestant accounts that were anxious to concentrate on the graphic details of the victim’s physical sufferings. Protestants were obsessed with the internal, spiritual condition of their victims, and expressed concern with their physical actions and sufferings only when such externals could be made to [xvii] yield some clue as to their inner state. This seemed to me to be the precise opposite of what Foucault’s account would suggest should have happened: surely the state and its agents should have gone to considerable lengths to extract maximum effect from the display of its power as that power was literally being inscribed on the flesh and expressed in the agony of the condemned. (xvii-xviii)

As I did so I discovered that, of course, many of the titillating features that I had discerned in the pamphlet narratives became, if anything, even more graphic and immediate once these stories were transferred to the stage. It was not that the drama was innocent of the legitimating moralized and providentialized structures that tended to contain this material in the pamphlets—far from it. Rather, the acting out of such events on the stage, the ventriloquising, inherently dialogic, nature of the drama rendered such frameworks less effective in containing the perverse, in many ways subversive, materials, the visions of disorder and deviance, of a world turned upside down, that the criminal and disgusting events at the centre of these narratives evoked. Where my earlier treatment of these materials had tended to concentrate on the ways in which these popular, titillating materials and genres could be appropriated for perfect protestant, even puritan, purposes, now my attention was turned in the opposite direction: towards the ways in which providentializing and moralizing narrative frameworks and conventions could serve to legitimate and enable the depiction, the literal acting-out, of the deviant and the destructive, for the titillation and entertainment, rather than the moral edification, of the audience. The result was not, of course, a contrast between a moralized, providentializing pamphlet press and an immoral, exploitative, ‘pornographic’ drama. On the contrary, both forms contained both elements, often in almost equal degrees, and texts in both genres occupied extreme positions on what one might term the titillation dial. (xx)

I had happened upon a very well-known means by which contemporaries made sense of their world—inversion, that tendency to interpret the world in terms of binary opposites of order and disorder. In the texts I was dealing with there seemed to be two varieties of this hermeneutic principle in operation, what I came to see as a moralized and a festive version. The first involved a straight narrative of the descent of some poor felon, though (often directly demonic) temptation, into sin and finally murder, immediately followed by his or her capture, condemnation, repentance and good death on the gallows. Here the world was turned upside down, conventional notions of order were inverted by the sin of the central character, only to be turned up the right way again by the remedial action of the relevant human authorities (ministers and magistrates)—aided by the supervening (and sometimes literally miraculous) interventions of divine providence and grace. The second, festive mode of inversion involved the narrative dwelling at some length, and in considerable titillating detail, on the nightmare vision of the world turned upside down evoked by the crime at the centre of the story. Even in the narratives where this elements was more developed, the moralized version always ultimately won out; having been turned upside down by the crime and the criminal, the world was always righted again by the authorities. The point was always ostensibly to reaffirm order, to restore the integrity of the social body. But the effectiveness of that reaffirmation seemed to depend to some degree at least on the extremity of the initial act of inversion. I was reminded here of the Bakhtinian notion of carnivalesque inversion. And, to put the matter in distinctly Bakhtinian terms, in order to restore the firm, closed, hierarchically ordered classical version thereof had first to get a full airing. (xxi)

Viewed from this perspective, the mixed nature of this genre, the presence in even the most moralized of these texts of festive, titillating elements and, conversely the presence even in the most fleshly and disgusting of moralizing language and narrative closures, was structurally necessary. (xxi)

… the very dialogic form of the drama, together with the ingenuity of many a playwright in both adopting and disrupting the narrative forms of the providentialized murder pamphlets (and hence both engaging and confusing the narrative expectations of the audience), created an even more ambivalent and conflicted relationship in the drama between what one might term the legitimating and moralizing frame and the titillating content. (xxi)

…pamphlet and sermon campaigns against the theatre launched both by godly preachers and Grub Street hacks in London during the late 1570s and 1580s. these campaigns, whether conducted by ‘puritans’ or not—and mostly they were not—were phrased in what one might term a puritan idiom or language. Moreover, they seem to have been carried out, if not always at the behest of, then certainly with the cognizance and encouragement of, the city authorities. Raised again, then, was the question of the nature of ‘puritanism’ … And just as the issue of Puritanism was raised, so was the question of literary and theatrical anti-puritanism. For, as Patrick Collinson has observed, this ideological form and literary trope emerged at precisely this period, out of the debate about the theatre and then in and through the Marprelate business. (xxii)

After all, this was just the sort of stuff to grab the reader’s attention, constraining precisely the sort of material that, in the drama, tended to burst the banks of moral platitude constraining it, to flood the stage with sex, violence and depravity. But more, it seemed to me, could be done with this material, particularly when to its treatment in the pamphlets could be added supplementary evidence from the plays—the domestic tragedies and city comedies—that fed upon the same stories, themes and obsessions as the pamphlets. For these texts contained so much social detail, so many references to contemporary social and political and religious ‘reality’ as not only to lend themselves to but even to demand what one might term a social and political as well as a formal analysis. I was encouraged and even provoked into pursuing this line of inquiry by treatments of this very material by literary scholars… (xxiii)

Rather, various sorts of breakdown in household and gender order were being used to figure a variety of other types of disorder—religious, ‘political’, social and economic. In the course of these investigations a number of gendered archetypes of sinful human nature at the end of its tether emerged: the whore, the infanticide (interestingly both female and male), the disloyal, adulterous wife, the cruel, lecherous husband, the rake/gallant/patriarch run amok, the usurer, the papist and latterly the puritan or sectary. Here were archetypal examples of or figures for the sins of the time—lust, covetousness, pride. (xxiv)

But, as often as not, these were not presented merely as the sins of the time but more specifically as of the city. For what emerged from these texts was an image of London, or at least of its backstreets, as an inverted world. London, of course, was a great city, a centre of getting and spending, of the display, dissipation and creation of wealth. As such, in the moral universe of these texts, it was also inevitably a centre of covetousness, pride and lust. London, then, came to figure or stand for the sins of the kingdom, the forces that were undermining order in household and street, locality and nation. The metropolitan world and the archetypes of evil and inversion that peopled it… (xxiv)

Here, too, emerged something of an exemplary narrative; a story of a city borne down by sin, warned of its consequences from pulpit and press, by a battery of learned and godly preachers, finally succumbing to the physical consequences of God’s wrath (represented, more often than not, by the recurrent outbreak of the plague in the city) and then repenting just in time to ward off the sort of final destruction that God had visited upon Sodom or Jerusalem. The plague thus became an important sub-theme in my research. By tracing it across a range of texts and genres, from Paul’s Cross sermons to Dekker’s plague pamphlets, I was able to ground, on a body of texts other than the pamphlets themselves, my analysis of the similarities and differences between the festive—even, in a furtively sinister sort of way, the celebratory tone of much of the pamphlet literature and the discourse of perfect Protestantism. (xxiv)

…the narratives and performances at the centre of this book should be seen as providing contemporaries with a complex, interconnected and gendered web of narrative conventions, images and tropes that allowed them to confront and control, to scare themselves with and reassure themselves about, some of the most threatening aspects of their social, religious and political worlds. (xxvi)

Obsessed with the maintenance of order, hierarchy and degree, fixated on the need to maintain consensus, to quiet debate and avoid change at all costs, current political, religious and social orthodoxy was unable to conceive of or talk about change or conflict except in terms of the simple binary oppositions between order and disorder, vice and virtue, Christ and Antichrist, orthodoxy and heresy, loyalty and treason, and the denunciatory language of sin and disorder, moral decline and divine punishment that those binaries inevitably trailed in their wake. (xxvi)

In these narrative we are offered access to what we might call the ‘unconscious’ of that entity known to a certain sort of conservative, organicist literary critic as ‘the renaissance mind’ or ‘the Elizabethan world-picture’. Here we find the cognitive dissonance generated by the vast distance between the ideals of political, social and religious order and hierarchy—ideals that were truly utopian in the intensity of their insistence on stability, deference and unity—and the reality of so much contemporary social, religious and political experience. (xxvi)

…the world, having been turned upside down by sin, was righted again by a combination of the intrusive impact of providence and the best efforts of those temporal and spiritual guardians of the worldly order, the magistrate and the minister. Both confronted the reader with vivid and disgusting images of disorder and dysfunction—and here one thinks of the London backstreets of Henry Goodcole’s pamphlets or the images of the city under plague conjured by Dekker and others. This was a vision of the world that could only be dispelled by the sacrifice of a scapegoated sinner and sin. In the narratives about felons it was the individual criminal who had to die; in the broader ‘city’ narratives the sins of the community had to be expiated through collective professions and rites of repentance. The figure of the whore, rake, patriarch run amok, usurer and papist around which these stories so often centred can thus be seen as classic scapegoats, through whose exclusion and sacrifice the peccant humour and evil impulses of the wider society could be purged and repressed. (xxvii)

…the process of confessionalisation and the competition for a popular audience between varieties of protestants (and puritans), papists and a series of writers and printers on the make; … (xxvii)

London, or rather the London literary underground, ‘Grub Street’ … (xxviii)

Nor is Munday the only such figure. Another just as intermittently ubiquitous character is George Whetstone. Whetstone wrote two crude denunciatory pamphlets against catholic traitors—not about Campion but the Babington conspirators—together with a number of narrations of the ways in which the Elizabethan regime had been preserved from both foreign and domestic popish threats by the providence of God. He wrote an expose of the sins of the city, a blueprint for the reform of London, and a play, Promus and Cassandra, that set out to denounce the effects of magisterial corruption on the moral tone of the city. (This play, incidentally, has been identified as the prime source for Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure… (xxviii)

Again, the pamphlet press and theatre may have led the way in producing literary and dramatic anti-puritan stereotypes, but they relied on the pre-existence of local religious and social conflicts and the linguistic and cultural stereotypes that accompanied them in order to be intelligible to the wide audiences to which they were designed to appeal. (xxx)

On this view, the theatre, far from being a crucial, much-censored and policed arm of the state (‘an ideological state apparatus’ in the Althusserian jargon of the late 1970s), in fact represented a sort of festive liminal space in which cultural materials and claims, deployed in earnest and often for the highest stakes on the scaffold and in the press and pulpit, could be played with and critiqued, … (xxxi)

And that, of course, is where Bartholomew Fair and Measure for Measure come in. for these texts represent theatrical anti-puritanism at its point of highest development and sophistication. Not only are Zeal-of-the-Land and Busy and Angelo two archetypes of puritan hypocrisy, pride, greed and lust, but the texts in and through which these characters are constructed are organized around issues central to the argument of this book, most obviously the question of the sins of the city and the best means to reform them. Both plays feature a magistrate in disguise, a common enough trope in the sermon literature on ‘order’ and a perfect type for the sort of surveillance that a puritan spiritual discipline threatened/offered. Both examine, in complicated comic ways, the nature and effects of a reformation administered by the classic alliance of magistrate and minister. Both address issues and concerns very the classic alliance of magistrate and minister. Both address issues and concerns very close to the heart of James I and both were, in fact, performed at court. In Bartholomew Fair the rivalry between stage and pulpit is more or less directly addressed; the affinities between players and play-wrights, on the one hand, and ministers, on the other, acknowledged and processed. Puritan notions of community are weighed and found wanting. (xxxii)

In Measure for Measure, the image, the exemplary narrative, of the prison conversion, of the good death of the condemned felon, to be brought about by the joint efforts of temporal spiritual authority, of minister and magistrate, is first set up as a synecdoche for wider schemes of puritan reformation and then subjected to withering ridicule and critique. Indeed, so withering and extensive is that critique that I argue below that a good deal of it leaks out of its initial anti-puritan context to eat away at similarly totalizing royal, absolutist claims to control and surveillance that, at first sight, the ending of the play might be taken to confirm. (xxxii)

Measure for Measure is thus presented as an accession play that combines a clear anti-puritan thrust with a rather more subversive and indeterminate interrogation of the pretensions to control of an emergent Stuart absolutism in church and state. (xxxii)

On the other, I want to qualify the parallel new historicist insistence that, however ‘subversive’, multivocal or unstable contemporary treatments or representations of ‘power’ may have been, the resulting loose [xxxii] ends, the instabilities and dissonances always ended up being contained; no sooner were they summoned into existence than they were successfully exorcised or diffused. (xxxii-xxxiii)

Here I want to suggest adding to a sometimes over-literal, determinedly univocal revisionist way of reading evidence a new historicist move towards the explication of texts as cultural artifacts, complex bearers of more than one, indeed sometimes of many, often contradictory, ‘meanings’ or significations. On the other side of the equation, I want to administer to new historicist procedures and perspectives a good dose of revisionist historians’ concern with the contingency of events, their obsession with political narrative and their conviction of the absolute centrality of religious and confessional identity formation and conflict to any adequate account of the politics and culture of this period. / This should prove to be a fruitful exercise, for it is by no means clear that the instabilities and discontinuities in the discourse and polemic of the period created by the cultural, ideological and performative energies, … were always contained and diffused. Moreover, if any when they were, they were so largely because of political events and outcomes; events and outcomes that to contemporaries were by no means obvious or inevitable and which … were sometimes anything but controlled or contained by the monarchical state. (xxxiii)

Of course, having debunked the godly, both Measure for Measure and Bartholomew Fair end ‘happily’ enough, the former with a ducally arranged series of marriages, the later with a magisterially sponsored feast. In neither case, however, has a stable balancing point of social or moral resolution or contract been achieved. For all the bite of their anti-puritan polemic and the acerbity and psychological accuracy of the caricatures they offer, both texts still leave us with an uncannily, even precariously, balanced view of the central issues. At the end of both plays we know never to trust a puritan but if unity and justice are not to be [xxxiii] achieved through puritan reformation, we are not given much guidance as to where else they might be found or how else they might be achieved. Central questions have been posed, a whole variety of targets hit and points made. James I has been stroked and his prejudices and obsessions have been at once ventriloquised, pandered to and satirized, that is to say simultaneously confirmed and undermined—but that is about it. Resolution, insofar as it is achieved in either text, is both summary and problematic and it is reached through rapidly effected dramatic rather than extended dialectical or dialogic means. Since we are dealing with plays, that, of couse, is precisely what we should expect. But such endings, such hastily arranged shotgun marriages, suit my current purposes admirably. (xxxiv)

Where once the superiority of great literature, of the truly canonical text, was supposedly proved by its achievement of organic unity, of social, moral and aesthetic integration, balance and order, now ambivalence, ambiguity and indeterminacy, the acknowledgement and exploration of unresolved tension and contradictions might well be thought to reign as the supreme tests of aesthetic or ideologico-political value. Well, if that is the case, then the analysis of Bartholomew Fair and Measure for Measure attempted below perhaps paradoxically serves to reinscribe the canon in contemporary terms, albeit through historical means and procedures. (xxxiv)

This is a moral and social world inverted by the sins of the city and its denizens of almost every social class or status group, and then righted by the divinely ordained dues ex machina of sovereign power. (Measure for Measure, Anti-Puritanism and ‘Order’ in Early Stuart England, 621)

The clustering of all these plays around King James’s accession certainly suggests a common treatment of the theme of a new broom sweeping the city clean after a long period of, if not misrule, then at least of social crisis and moral laxity. Placed in this wider context, the trope of the disguised or absent ruler might be seen as allowing a suitably respectful implicit critique of the final years of the old Queen and the dog days of the 1590s to serve as a backdrop for the reforming and reconciliatory glories of the new reign. (622)

…alone of these authors Shakespeare chose to attach these familiar tropes and narrative twitches to the issue of the reformation of manners, a process of both spiritual and temporal reform to be achieved by an alliance of the powers of ministers and magistrate, and thence to Puritanism itself. For, in Measure for Measure, the familiar figure of the absent/disguised magistrate, gone walkabout, is directly linked to a puritanically inspired campaign of moral reformation to be brought about through a newly rigorous enforcement of the law. (622)

But the play’s status as an exercise in anti-puritanism has not been placed in the context of the accession of James I, an event that put the issue of puritan reformation (albeit briefly) back at James I, an event that put the issue of puritan reformation (albeit briefly) back at the centre of the national agenda. …the resurgence of puritan political activism of a sort unknown since the 1580s, served to make a puritan reformation of manners, indeed something like a puritan regime in church and state, a threatening possibility at the time; and Measure for Measure can plausibly be read as a response to that situation. (622)

For in and through its anti-puritanism the play manages to engage with issues at the heart of conventional wisdom on the interrelationship between secular and spiritual power, magistracy and ministry, in the effort to maintain order and achieve reformation. As the preceding analysis has demonstrated, the inherent compatibility, indeed the almost perfectly symmetrical complementarity, of divine the human law and justice, the powers of the magistrate and those of the minister, was central to contemporary notions of order or reformation as those notions were canvassed in a whole variety of texts. Such notions are put to the test by the action and outcome of Measure for Measure, which interrogates contemporary assumption about both the nature of order and the ways in which ‘order’ might best be maintained. (623)

The commonplaces being enlisted and tested out in the play can be found clustered together around a tableau entirely familiar to both Shakespeare’s contemporaries and readers of this book—that of the felon tried, condemned and converted appearing on the gallows to acknowledge his or her sin, confront death and throw him- or herself on the mercy of God. As we have seen above, in the emotional and ideological dynamic of that scene were compacted contemporary assumptions about the way in which social, moral and spiritual order could be restored after the rent in the social fabric caused by a capital crime had been discovered. Such a restoration was brought about in two ways. First, the felon was to be apprehended, tried and punished by the secular magistrate. In this process the inherent congruence between human and divine justice was often figured by the overtly providential, indeed often frankly miraculous, interventions through which divine sovereignty intervened to bring the crime and the culprits to light. Second, having apprehended the felon, the magistrate should hive sufficient time and access to the spiritual arm, personified in protestant England by the godly minister, whose job it was to extract a full confession from the accused or condemned before bringing him or her to a potentially saving sense of his or her own sin, a sincere repentance and an acceptance of death as a just penalty for his or her crime. This repentance should then be played out on the gallows, as a fittingly edifying coda to the whole process. (623)

In order for this system to work, however, each element had to play its role, doing its duty while acknowledging its limits. Thus, no matter how repentant the criminal, the magistrate should not pardon him or her. Justice must be seen to be done and crime punished; mercy was shown to the sinner through the ministering efforts of the godly ministers and the just judgment of God. In this synergistic collaboration between magistrate and minister, this interlocking exchange between human and divine justice and mercy, we can see precisely the assumptions and expectations that underpinned wider puritan and perfect protestant schemes for further reformation. … Human justice was done and seen to be done, sin punished and God’s judgments on the land averted, while that mixture of justice and mercy that was the ultimate expression of divine sovereignty over the world was figured in the somber combination of secular punishment and spiritual ministration that brought the hope, perhaps even the expectation, of salvation to the repentant sinner. (623)

There was an ideological tendency to separate the spheres of the magistrate and the minister, the church and state, that arguably reached its apogee in the Presbyterian platform. For under Presbyterianism church and state, ecclesiastical and secular power, would be totally split apart, representing two entirely separate but also entirely congruent structures of power and authority, through whose collaboration wholly new levels of order, control and repression could be achieved. (624)

Measure… On a number of occasions the play appears to assay or start what might well become a comfortingly familiar murder-pamphlet narrative, but at no point is the outcome what the conventional script provided by the murder pamphlets would suggest. Thus, I will argue, the expected compatibilities and collaborations between human and divine laws and justice, magisterial and ministerial power, which underlay not only the narrative structures and expectations of the murder pamphlets but also the whole notion of a reformation of manners as well, were called into question. (624)

At one level, of course, the play leaves us in no doubt that such a reformation is needed. Just like the other comedies cited above, Measure for Measure spends a good deal of time satirizing, and hence revealing for both the edification and enjoyment of the audience, the—in this instance—largely sexual sins and corruptions of the city. (624)

…throughout Measure for Measure a number of characters, in a number of guises and situations, assert that things have got out of hand under the tolerant, even complaisant, rule of the Duke. (624)

…the same visions of corruption and disorder has been confirmed by three very different witnesses. The first and entirely predictable source for such a moral jeremiad is the puritan Angelo. … The second and indeed more comprehensive indictment of the moral condition of the commonwealth comes surprisingly from the reprobrate gallant Lucio, … Even Claudio, the main victim of the attempt to right this situation, admits tthat the law has gone unobserved and unenforced for years… (625)

If we take a somewhat literal-minded attitude to certain hints dropped in the text, the nineteen years of Claudio’s reckoning or the fourteen of the Duke’s would take us back to somewhere around the late 1580s or very early 1590s—the beginning of a period of crisis, war, high taxation, factional dispute and notional moral decay that was now supposedly being brought to a close by the arrival of the new King. Certainly we know that at James’s accession a variety of reforming projects were proposed. The most famous, of course, were the plans for the further reformation of the church put forward in the millenary petition and discussed at Hampton Court, but there were also a whole range of other projects for the reform of the commonwealth being pushed under the royal nose.

…the Duke, aware of the need for a new broom, stands aside so that the precise Angelo can conduct an experiment in rigorous, reforming rule, an experiment rendered necessary, the Duke acknowledges, by his own previous laxity. It is as though a laboratory experiment were being conducted on stage through which puritan schemes for further reformation and/or a reformation of manners could be put to the test… At stake here is not merely the value of puritan proposal and policies, but also the moral worth, the motives and claims to personal sincerity and godliness, of the puritans themselves. It would, in short, be hard to conceive of a more direct address made to current politico-religious circumstances; this, the audience is being told, is what would happen if power were to be entrusted to the godly. (626)

Of course in 1603-04 puritan schemes concerned themselves not so much with the formation of manners as with the further reformation of the English church, the millenary petition representing a wish list of grievances and piecemeal reforms designed to make it a more acceptable home for the godly. But that, of course, is not how the Puritanism of the precise Angelo is presented; his agenda, and indeed that of the Duke, is concerned with moral laxity and the need for a reformation of manners to be brought about through the rigorous exercise of secular authority in the fight against sin and corruption. In choosing such a scenario, Shakespeare represents with wonderful subtlety precisely why the puritan agenda might have seemed so attractive and compelling to contemporaries. (626)

Rather than representing a wholly novel and distinctive ‘puritan’ phenomenon, many of the constituent parts of the reformation of manners—the relief and control of the poor, the regulation of sexuality, particularly the extirpation of bastardy, bridal pregnancy and the reform of a set of popular customs and norms surrounding marriage formation, the regulation/extirpation of brothels, theatres and the tight licensing of alehouses—are seen as more general phenomena, based ideologically on rather commonplace (humanist- and/or hot protestant-inspired) notions of order and, practically, on the exigencies of population pressure and social and cultural change in town and country. Insofar as the self-described ‘godly’ (i.e. puritans religiously or pietistically defined) had any special relationship with these concerns it was a matter of degree, of the relative zeal with which they pursued those goals. (627)

The nature of this connection between puritan zeal and more general social and moral concerns and commonplaces of the period is figured in the play by the offence for which Angelo wants to impose an exemplary punishment on Claudio. This amounts, in contemporary parlance, to fornication, Claudio having been a party to what was termed bridal pregnancy, that is, having entered into sexual relations (and conceived a child) after pledging one’s troth in marriage but before the formal church ceremony. Since the private exchange of vows was taken to constitute marriage, with the formal church ceremony merely declaring the new state of affairs to the world, this was a common practice in the sixteenth century and remained one into the early seventeenth century. Indeed, until late on in the sixteenth century it was not an offence much prosecuted in the church courts. …As Eric Carlson and Martin Ingram have both argued, such a tightening of the regulations governing sexuality and procreation was in part designed to prevent poor couples from rushing into marriage and producing progeny that they could ill afford to maintain. But it also had a wider cultural and religious resonance: shifting control of the definition of marriage into the hands of centralized ecclesiastical authority; imposing the written norms and outward forms of the national church onto an area of life previously governed in part at least by popular custom and assumption; rendering subject to outward penalty, and in some cases no doubt to internalized guilt and anxiety, sexual practices and social assumptions that had hitherto been perfectly acceptable. (627-628)

By so explicitly locating Claudio’s alleged fault on the cusp between what one might term official reform and popular or traditional practice and convention, Shakespeare has placed the action and resonance of the play precisely on a pressure point of ambiguity, tension and conflict in contemporary mores. (628)

…hence Claudio’s bitter comment that he stood condemned merely ‘for a name’ (I, ii, 158-60), in other words for behavior that had hitherto been perfectly acceptable but had now been reclassified, under the rubric of fornication, as a sin or crime. … The case placed by Shakespeare at the centre of the play thus might be taken very nicely both to represent and exaggerate what was a common enough contemporary apprehension of ‘puritan extremism’. (629)

The document is headed ‘Things Grevous and Offensive to the Commonwealth Which May Be Reformed by Your Highness or by a Parliament’ and is addressed on the back ‘To the King’s Majesty’. … Here, then, is proof positive of contemporary concern over offences like that committed by Claudio and Juliet and of the association of an Angelo-like severity over matters matrimonial and sexual with wider puritan campaigns for ecclesiastical and commonwealth reform. (630)

On one, now rather venerable, view of the reformation of manners it might be possible to see the resulting tensions as part of a clash between an increasingly uniform, reforming, literate elite or official culture and a more spontaneously festive and lusty ‘popular’ culture or, couched in terms taken from a yet more recent rendition of the impact of Protestantism of English society, of a clash between a hot protestant or puritan reformist clique and the rest of a largely ‘traditional’ or ‘catholic’ society. In fact, according to both the play and a good deal of recent scholarship, neither view is quite right. (631)

To begin with the elite, the actions of the gentle couple Claudio and Juliet, together with the relatively relaxed, approving or at least complaisant attitude to their actions evinced by characters as diverse (and elite) as Escalus and Lucio, show that what was at stake here was not a simple clash between plebian and learned or official cultures. On the one hand, we have the relative lenience of the experienced magistrate Escalus—and let us not forget that the play opens with a paean of praise from the Duke to his expertise in the ‘properties of government’ in general and the ‘nature of our people,/ Our city’s institutions and the terms/For a common justice (I i 1-11). …Where Angelo wants to push on with the enforcement of the full letter of the law against Claudio, Escalus urges mercy: ‘if my brother wrought by my pity, it should not be so with him’ (III, ii, 204-5). Confronted by the confused complaints of Elbow against the bawd Pompey and his associate and client Froth, Escalus refuses to rush to judgment. This does not represent mere lenience or complaisant weakness; the contrast being drawn here is not one between laxity and zeal. Escalus is not turning a blind eye to the iniquities of Pompey’s trade but rather recognizing the limitations inherent in a justice system reliant on intermediaries and officers as officiously incompetent as Elbow. Throughout his dealings with Pompey, Escalus is unequivocal in his denunciation of the unlawfulness of his trade, and when Pompey and Mistress Overdone, his employer, appear before him again he is exemplary in his denunciation … (632)

…Claudio and Juliet. For Escalus it is at most a ‘fault’, worthy of reprehension but not serious punishment and certainly not death, … In the play, then, the magistracy itself is seen to be split over the definition and enforcement of ‘the reformation of manners’. (632)

But if the elite is divided, the populus is by no means as unified in its opposition to the moral assumptions that underpin the official campaign for sexual regulation and the right definition of marriage as some recent interpretations of the reformation of manners might lead us to expect. … Elbow’s …indignation reaches its height at the suggestion that he was suspected of having had sexual relations with his wife before they were married. (632)

For, as Laura Gowing and others have pointed out, issues of sexual reputation and honour, the maintenance of ‘chaste’ behavior and the avoidance of the least taint of its polar opposite, ‘whoredom’, were at the centre of popular and/or plebian notions of credit, reputation and honour. The plethora of defamation cases concerned in some sense with sexual reputation, the majority of them initiated by often quite humble women against other women, reveal the social reach, indeed the apparent ubiquity, of such concerns. [8] (633)

…sex and death are frequently associated in the play, and Isabel’s status as a would-be nun, just about to start a life of (catholic) chastity as the action begins, surely placed her and the play’s attitude to the nature and value of female chastity in question before an at least notionally protestant London audience. (634)

Thus the ‘reforming’ impulse, figured in the play by Angelo’s condemnation of Claudio, is not merely or exclusively puritan; it was, after all, as Martin Ingram among others has shown, not only puritans but the ecclesiastical authorities and local elites, acting through the church courts, who were seeking to impose and enforce this change of definitions and practice. This state of affairs is surely figured in the play by the fact that in prosecuting, indeed, in seeking to execute, Claudio, Angelo, in theory at least, was not ‘innovating’ but merely seeking to enforce a long-ignored statute—of which, of course, there were a great many in early modern England. (636)

Indeed, from sumptuary legislation to the laws governing recusancy, through the statute of artificers and indeed the poor law itself, the community of commonwealth of England as pictured in the statutes of the realm represented some sort of centrally regulated, all-embracing, almost totalitarian utopia, in which virtually no economic, social or religious practice was free from the surveillance and regulation of a notionally all-seeking regime. But that, of course, was very far from reality. (636)

For all this congruence between puritan attitudes and the hegemonic myths and aspirations of the wider society, Puritanism, certainly as personified in the play by Angelo, was far from being a merely consensual or orderly phenomenon. For, by taking contemporary myths and fantasies of order, surveillance and control literally, by pushing up against the customary de facto limits that authority in fact tended to impose upon itself in its day-to-day dealings with social reality, by ignoring what old hands like Escalus took to be the self-evident dictates of the reasonable and the practicable, puritans often created disorder and conflict. In the play, as in reality, or at least as in certain recent scholarly renditions of reality, what sets the puritan Angelo apart from his peers and contemporaries is not so much a novel or conceptually distinct ideology as a certain sort of affect, a certain style of personal conduct and an addiction to a concomitantly rigorous and severe style of outward regiment, a certain literalism and legalism in the pursuit of what remained at the level of theory or discourse relatively consensual or common aims. (636)

As the Duke’s remarks made at the outset of the play demonstrate, it is precisely this general reputation for godliness that has prompted him to pick Angelo as his deputy from the first place. … Far from being seen as a threat to authority or order, here Puritanism is presented as but the leading edge of wider notions of godliness, order and reformation, the best chance of moral regeneration in a corrupt and declining world. [637]… As his opening speech makes clear, the Duke is well aware of the very different styles of rule personified by Escalus and Angelo, and in placing Escalus under the younger Angelo’s authority he is making a conscious decision to give Puritanism its head. What follows is, then, a controlled experiment in puritan rule. ‘Hence’, as the Duke observes, ‘we shall see if power change purpose what our seemers be’ (I, iii, 53-54). (637-8)

…recent interpretations of the socio-cultural history of the period. These have tended to see the late Elizabethans and early Stuart periods, immediately after the reformation, as the site of a process of social and cultural differentiation, with a literate, godly, reforming official or elite culture divided from and indeed increasingly antipathetic to a popular festive culture, which was being forced more and more to the margins of the social order and the cultural areana—into, on Peter Clark’s or indeed David Underdown’s version of the period, the lower orders and the alehouse. However, it is not clear that the rendition of these socio-cultural clashes and tensions proffered by Shakespeare in this play quite lends itself to the neat social and cultural categories upon which this analysis is based. (638)

If, as has been argued above, the puritan reforming impulse had scarcely united the social or even the magisterial elite, the lowlife carnivalesque world of Pompey and Mistress Overdone is likewise pictured in the play as anything but exclusively or even predominantly plebian. Lucio, a central figure in the play and one of Mistress Overdone’s leading clients, is clearly a gentleman, … (638)

Both Froth and Pompey are then let off with a warning, in Froth’s case not a very severe one at that (II, I, 120-89). Such class-based warning, in Froth’s case not a very severe one at that (II, I, 120-89). Such class-based lenience emerges as a central characteristic of Escalus’s style of rule. (639).

But if this world is pictured by Shakespeare as sinful, unlike the pamphlets and some of the plays discussed above… he does not portray it as simply amoral or depraved. Let us take Lucio as an example. He clearly has some sort of ethical, honor-based code of conduct, but it is one centred on an extreme version of the double standard, whereby female sexual honor and reputation matter greatly. In women chastity, i.e. sexual abstinence of the sort that he perceives in the would-be nun Isabel, is a matter for awed admiration; in men, as his remarks about Angelo show, it is the object of something bordering on bemused contempt. (640)

Here are drives and pleasures that are presented as simultaneously festive and deviant, necessary to life and yet full of corruption, tending equally inevitably towards death and dissolution as well as towards renewal and fertility. Angelo (and his farcical lowlife counterpart Elbow), if you like, stand for Lent and the closed, smooth and controlled classical body, while Pompey and Lucio, Barnardine and Abhorson and, indeed, Elbow’s swellingly pregnant wife whose craving for stewed prunes has led her into a house of ill-repute to satisfy an otherwise uncontrollable physical impulse, stand for the exorbitant, leaky, almost formless body of carnival. (644)

While from Angelo’s and, indeed, from the Duke’s perspective, the likes of Pompey represent nothing but depravity and corruption, viewed from Lucio’s perspective Angelo is scarcely human, best talked about in terms of the monstrous, the misshapen and the unnatural. And, insofar as there can be any such thing as a good ruler in this moral universe, he must be pictured, as Lucio pictures the Duke, as equally mired in the sins and pleasures of the flesh as his subjects and therefore as easily complaisant in the face of their sexual peccadilloes as he is in the face of his own. (644)

But while Shakespeare uses the carnivalesque underworld of the brothel and the bawdy house as a way of pointing up the fallacies, contradictions and hypocrisies inherent in ‘official’ thinking on the reformation of manners, he is also very careful not to romanticize or unduly valorize this world. The sins of concupiscence may not be as serious as the likes of Angelo make out, but their pursuit in the commercialized, almost asocial world of the brothel is of itself no very effective way to combat the sins of aversion. In short, there is nothing very festive or community-enhancing in Shakespeare’s rendition of the carnivalesque underworld. … On the contrary, this is a thoroughly atomized, commercialized world in which the pleasures of the flesh are up for sale and everyone is out for his or her own advantage. (6440

There is, of course, a considerable element of the festive to be found in this milieu, but it resides in the joking wordplay and sophistry of Pompey and the sarcasm and invective of Lucio, none of which is in any very obvious or direct sense socially integrative or morally edifying. Here, of course, one might very well object that laughter is in itself an integrative, unifying force, creating, as it does, a spontaneously unified moral community of the amused. However, we are dealing here with a slighting, bruising laughter more likely to stimulate than to quiet the sins of aversion, rending the unity and peace of the social bond with its derisive laughter can very often prove morally subversive, calling into question values and assumptions to which many of those laughing would regard themselves as dearly attached in their normal waking, non-amused lives. … central ambiguities of the play. For, as we have seen above, it is precisely through such funny, slightly and bitter jokes and asides by the likes of Pompey and Lucio that many of the play’s most important moral insights, arguments and conundrums are set up. (644-645)

A number of characters associate sex and death in a way that has justifiably excited the interests of modern (Freudian and post-Freudian) critics and commentators. Isabel is, of course, the character keenest on this particular trope, greeting Angelo’s corrupt proposition to swap her virginity for her brother’s life with the claim ‘that were I under the terms of death,/ 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’ (II, iv, 100-4). Talk here is, of course, relatively cheap since it is precisely not Isabel’s life that is on the line in her negotiations with Angelo. … Such attitudes clearly ran in the family for, as we have seen, when Claudio was in a stoic mode, confronting his family for, as we have seen, when Claudio was in a stoic mode, confronting his end with both acceptance and defiance, he had compared the embrace of death to that of a new bride (‘I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in mine arms’ (III, I, 82-84). … Later still, Angelo repeatedly claims that he would rather die for his fornication with Isabel than lived in married bliss with Mariana, and even the sensualist Lucio seems to prefer death to ‘marriage to a punk’. (647)

Even more perhaps than in Jonson’s rendition in Bartholomew Fair, the festive world of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque is presented here as having been almost entirely corrupted by commerce. Greed, lust and fornication are seen as complementary, indeed as virtually interchangeable, vices. On this view, the real trouble with the sins of concupiscence is not so much their exorbitantly fleshly nature as the way, transmuted through the relations of the marketplace and the current obsession with sexual honor and reputation as the cynosure of all virtue and public reputation, they can become the grounds for the far more serious sins of aversion. (648)

Thus, while Angelo abandons Mariana because her dowry is too small, Claudio risks Juliet’s reputation (and, as it turns, his own life) in the pursuit of an enhanced marriage settlement. Pompey battens on the folly and fleshly weakness of his gentle clients, while they use their wealth and status both to buy his services and to avoid the penalties of the law, leaving their low-born erstwhile friends and paramours to raise their bastards and do their time in jail. / Here, then, is no alternative vision or source of order or human solidarity, but an asocial world of greed and sexual gratification. It is, in fact, a more brazen and public but certainly no more admirable version of Angelo’s furtively corrupt private life. (648)

…to claim a particularly exalted honour or reputation through chastity or to impose unrealistically reformed standards of behavior on others, is certain to end in hypocrisy and corruption. On this evidence, then, neither the Lent personified by the busy reformer Angelo nor the carnival personified by Lucio and Pompey can be said to contain within itself a vision or potential for true order, community and real justice. For if, as Lucio and Pompey both cliam, the natural consequence of Angelo’s view of the world is a city devoid of children, unpeopled by the unnatural vigour of his repression of all sexual impulses or fleshly pleasures, then, as Elbow observes, the consequence of their moral vision would be aworld full of bastards (III, ii, 1-4). (648)

But if we are not meant simply to accede to Pompey’s bitter moral equivalences and cynically fleshly and material asides, at the very least we seem to be being invited to consider the moral oddness of a society in which the sins of concupiscence are taken to be so very much more heinous than those of aversion. (648).

Moreover, the unwitting agent of his downfall is not some painted hussy but the equally godly and rigorous Isabel. / She is Claudio’s sister and only unwillingly drags herself away form the gates of the nunnery she is about to enter to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. (650)

In part, this experience leads to self-knowledge: looking back, Angelo can see his former piety as a pose, a source of pride and a way to win the admiration of others: … [651] Such incipient self-knowledge leads, however, not to repentance, humility and Christian charity, but to a desperate descent into sin. … Here then is a classic instance of puritan hypocrisy, pharisaical outward holiness serving as a mere cover for inner corruption, a corruption that, once unleashed, turns out to be far more destructive in its effects precisely because it has hitherto lain unacknowledged and unregarded. (651-652)

…this instance of hypocrisy, the failing of moral insight and judgment, is not merely personal, a product of Angelo’s Puritanism. On the contrary, it is that of the whole social and moreal system that valued a peculiarly stringent and partial definition of chastity and sexual honor at a far higher rate than the keeping of publicly declared vows and promises. Put differently, this is a society in which Claudio’s supposed sin of concupiscence is taken far more seriously than Angelo’s arguably far more heinous sins of aversion (greed, oath-breaking and slander). (652)

Again Shakespeare’s portrait of Angelo parallels and develops the stocks in trade of contemporary anti-puritanism, but again he is able to use those stereotypes as a way of establishing a number of contemporary ethical priorities, a hierarchy of values, which the rest of the play then calls into radical question. (652)

The issue here is not so much the fact of her refusal as the nature of it. Her certainty that his life is not worth her virginity is immediate and complete. ‘More than our brother is our chastity’, she assures herself (II, iv, 184), her use of the royal ‘we’ surely underlining the overweening spiritual pride that lies behind her moral certainty of the transcendent social and spiritual value of her own sexual purity. (653)

The double standard that saw female sexual license as far as more morally and socially serious, indeed polluting, than male promiscuity was known to and accepted by nearly all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries—as we have seen, it is at times seemingly confirmed by the moral arguments of the play—but was it, these exchanges seem to ask, actually rooted in divine law? And if it was not, if it was mere human convention, under what circumstances should it cease to pertain? (653)

That doubt leads directly to the question of whether Isabel’s motivations and concerns, as she expresses them in her later exchanges with Claudio, are exclusively or even mainly spiritual or other-worldly. They seem intensely social, concerned with those socially constructed and experienced categories of honour, … (653)

…when Lucio invokes the absent Duke as the way out of the difficulties created by the over-severe Angelo—imagined, as we have seen above, by Lucio as some sort of inhuman monster of chastity and unregenerative coldness—it is not as a wise Solomonic judge, some higher authority or ultimate court of appeal, through whose insight and goodness the competing claims of justice and mercy, of Christian ethics and the standards and demands of secular justice in a fallen world might be reconciled. On the contrary, Lucio pictures the Duke in his own and Claudio’s enjoyment of the sexual chase and the pleasures of the flesh, would meet Claudio’s action not with reprehension but approval, even admiration. As he tells the disguised Duke at one point, ‘If the old fantastical duke of dark corners had been at home, he [Claudio] had lived’ (IV,iii, 156-7). … The duke, I say to thee again, would eat mutton on Fridays. (III,ii,166-78). (655)

…Lucio’s description of Angelo’s seeming indifference to the lusts and pleasures of the flesh in terms of the deformed, the monstrous and the unnatural, and, on the other, [1, my #] the authentically puritan nostrum that those devoid of a lively sense of their own internal corruption were precisely those most likely to succumb to theological error and personal presumption and sin. But what puritan doctors of the soul presented as an obstacle on the road to true godliness, [2] Shakespeare here presents not just as a defining characteristic of puritans [3] but as an inherently necessary product of all such attempts at reformation, [4] to which, of course, the godly were particularly prone but which were, as we have seen above, far from being a puritan monopoly. (655)

…parallels established between Angelo’s protestant or puritan rigorism and the altogether more catholic and monastic rigorism personified by Isabel. Thus, having started out apparently as a fairly narrow and conventional exercise in anti-puritanism, the play ends up as an implicit critique of a far wider body of contemporary assumptions and priorities than can meaningfully be defined as ‘puritan’. (656)

On this view, God’s law was his will, and his will the law; there could be no distinction between what God willed and what he did. To ask if God’s actions were just was thus both tautological and blasphemous. (658)

Moreover, to question any of this on the basis of human perceptions of justice was blasphemous. This was to judge an omnipotent God by human standards and thus the possibility either of injustice or mutability to a deity for whom either attribute was ontologically impossible. Certainly to suggest that in matters of human salvation our puny notions of natural justice demanded that God respond to the virtues and vices, the sins or graces of humanity, limiting his role to merely punishing the one and rewarding the other, was to render the will of God subordinate or subject to that of man. To argue thus was to insult, yet again, God’s omnipotence. In saving some and damning others, God was not responding to human action and choice, to sinners deciding whether to accept or to reject divine grace, choosing to sin or not to sin, but arbitrarily electing from out of the corrupt mass of fallen humanity, all of whom stood condemned by the moral law, those whom he would save, leaving the rest to their deserved fate in hell. The situation was perfectly summed up in Claudio’s words ‘on whom in will, it will;/On whom it will not, so; yet still ‘tis just’. On this Calvinist view, all humanity was in the same relation to divine law as Claudio was to the local Viennese statue under which he stood condemned to death. The law had been passed and was still in force; he was technically guilty of the offense in question and hence subject to death. All humanity were, likewise, always already in contravention of God’s law and hence always subject to eternal damnation—unless, that is, God, of his own mere good pleasure, decided otherwise. (658)

Most obviously, we are being confronted with fundamental elisions between divine and human authority, law and justice. All the central characters in the play are confused and indeed perpetuate confused analyses of these divisions and distinctions. The premises upon which the puritan experiment of Angelo’s vicegerency is set up are themselves a result of category confusion. (658)

Thus the Duke (with James I and a host of contemporaries) locates the essence of good government of kingship in the complete congruence between the ruler’s inner virtues and the justice of his outward rule. Replying to the Provost’s outburst against Angelo for condemning Claudio (‘it is a bitter deputy’), the Duke/Friar replies, ‘Not so, not so; his life is parallel’d / Even with the line and stroke of his great justice./ He doth with holy abstinence subdue/ That in himself which he spurs on his power/ To qualify others: were he meal’d with that/ Which he corrects, then were he tyrannous;/ But being thus so, he’s just’ (IV, ii, 77-83). Here, then, the difference between tyranny and justice is said to reside in the moral qualities of the ruler. It is an assertion that builds on the Duke/Friar’s earlier remark to Escalus that if Angelo’s ‘own life answer the straightness of his proceeding, it shall become him well; wherein if he chance to fail, he hath sentence himself’ (III, ii, 249-51). But the principle is given its fullest expression in the Duke/Friar’s resounding statement of moral and monarchical principle at the close of act III: ‘He who the sword of heaven will bear/ Should be as holy as sever: Pattern in himself to know,/ Grace to stand, and virtue, go:/ More nor less to others paying/ Than by self-offences weighing./ Shame to him whose cruel striking/ Kills for faults of his own liking!/ Twice treble shame on Angelo,/ To weed my vice, and let his grow!/ O, what may man within him hide,/ Though angel on the outward side!’ (III, ii, 253-65). … Tyranny here is defined not so much in terms of the ruler’s outward actions, but in terms of a disjunction, or hypocritical contradiction, between his internal moral or spiritual state and his outward rule. (659)

Now, insofar as what is at stake here is the spiritual condition, and likely fate in the next like, of the ruler, insofar, that is, as the actions of the judge are being viewed from the perspective of God, all of this is fair enough. It remains, however, a very odd basis for any workable system of human justice. … yet it is enunciated as a commonplace by the Duke, both in his real persona as secular ruler and in his assumed persona as a friar. This cannot but lend the opinion a peculiar weight and authority; in doing this, Shakespeare is reflecting quite accurately what was in effect a contemporary commonplace or cliché. James I himself appeared to subscribe to something like this view of good kingship as he sold both it and himself to his future subjects in the Basilikon Doron. On this view, then, the most morally perfect, personally chaste individual made the best magistrate, and of course, it is precisely such assumptions that led the Duke to appoint Angelo as his deputy in the first place. (660)

It was, of course, a contemporary commonplace, increasingly repeated in the absolutist atmosphere of James’s reign, that prince were ‘as gods’, the immediate vicegerents of God, taking their authority and legitimacy directly from the deity. This, of course, did not mean that their powers or ends were the same as God’s, and yet Angelo has clearly fallen into the trap of assuming that they are. (660)

His appropriation of an essentially Calvinist account of the workings of divine sovereignty and justice as the model for his own rule has already been cited above. (660)

As Isabel sees, Angelo conflates the powers and ends of what her brother Claudio calls ‘the demi-God, Authority’ with those of the real God. … Angelo’s earlier claim that ‘It is the law not I condemn your brother’ (II, ii, 80-81). By Angelo’s account, Claudio is caught in ‘the manacles/ Of the all-binding law’ (II, iv, 93-94), ‘a forfeit of the law’ (II, ii, 71) whose life is being taken by ‘the most just law’. Angelo is merely acting as the law’s agent; ‘the voice’, as he puts it to Isabel, ‘of the recorded law’ (II, iv, 52-53, 61-62). / Taken together, these remarks represent a reiteration of the basic protestant claims that all sins, since they are offences against God’s justice, are equally worthy of damnation (a basic protestant principle that interestingly James I had himself adduced as part of his case for the seriousness of the sin of fornication). Angelo is now applying that insight to the arena of secular justice. He is behaving as though the law by which he claims to be bound in executing Claudio were the immutable moral law of God, rather than an inherently imperfect and pliable human law. (660)

As Isabel points out to him, viewed form the perspective of divine justice we are all condemned as sinners fit only for damnation. But as a secular magistrate Angelo is not a perfect deity directly enforcing the moral law against a fallen humanity, he is a mere man enforcing an inherently imperfect human law. (660)

The same point is echoed by Isabel in the course of her first debate with Angelo when she reminds him that it is precisely the prerogative of sovereign powers to change its mind: ‘authority, though it err like others,/ Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself/ That skins the vice o’the top’ (II, ii, 135-37). … In seeming to exalt the power of magistracy he has, in fact, diminished it, tying the prince to a mechanical application of the law when in fact the essence of the royal prerogative lies in the prince’s freedom from the demands of human law, … (661)

It is Isabel, of course, who puts her finger on the conceptual conflation that underlies Angelo’s mistaken view of Christian magistracy when she tells him, in response to his statement of the moral equivalence of bastard-bearing and murder, that ‘’Tis set down so in heaven but not in earth’ (II, iv, 50). Isabel is pointing out here (as James had in his denunciation of the sin of fornication) that the definition of human sin as the transgression of divine law and as such as deserving of eternal damnation is based on the omnipotence and glory of the party offended—God—rather than on the relative seriousness of the offence when judged by the usual criteria of conventional wisdom, social or moral consequence and human law. On this view, there was not, and could not be, any such thing as a venial sin: from the perspective of divine justice all sin was mortal. But what was true for divine justice was not true for human; the human magistrate did have an obligation to distinguish between capital and less serious crimes and to mitigate his judgments accordingly. (661)

Having mercilessly exposed the pretensions and confusions of Angelo’s account of the nature and workings of human magistracy, Isabel then proceeds to mobilize precisely the same sort of confusions and conflations between human and divine justice and mercy for her own purposes—the reprieve or pardon of Claudio. … human justice—a task perforce undertaken by fallen humans—becomes all but synonymous with a virtually indiscriminate mercy. On this moral calculus, anything else would represent tyrannical hypocrisy. (662)

By way of reply, Angelo resorts to a series of divisions between intention and action, secular and divine justice, the duties of the private Christan and those of the public magistrate, all of which were contemporary commonplaces. In formal terms, this is a debate that he wins—hands down. … (II, I, 17-31). (663)

The opening statement—‘’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,/ Another thing to fall’—draws an entirely conventional distinction between human and divine, secular and spiritual justice. For God—and certainly for God as hot protestants like Angelo conceived him—evil thoughts and intentions were just as serious offences, just as damningly sinful, as the correlative actions. Judged from the perspective of divine justice, therefore, no doubt the judge and the jury, the prince and inferior magistrate, were as often as not as guilty of the offence for which they were doing out punishment as the accused. That, however, was not the point for human judges and magistrates, who were punishing not sin per se but human crimes and offences as they were defined by and known to human law. Certainly, such would seem to be the purport of the next few lines, where Angelo argues, in effect, that the internal dispositions and the undiscovered actions of judges, jurors and, indeed, of felons (which are inherently unknowable, at least to human law and authority) can have no bearing on the working of the human criminal justice system. (663)

Here Angelo approaches the contemporary cliché, also much beloved of James I, that the moral condition of the magistrate cannot undermine the force and order-producing social utility of the justice that he metes out. Even the rule of the most depraved tyrant ensures a sort of order, infinitely preferable to the chaos and disorder that would inevitably ensue from any popular attempt to remove him or mitigate his tyranny. On this view, even tyrants fulfill their God-given role as magistrates, preserving order and purveying justice. (664)

(II, ii, 100-06). In other words, by enforcing human justice in any particular instance, the magistrate is doing more than punishing an individual fault; he is, in effect, acting as the defender of the general cause of human order, protecting others, indeed generations unborn, from the disorder that must inevitably ensue from letting known and notorious crimes pass unpunished. (664)

…before the perfect justice of God all humans were sunk in sin, equally subject to the penalties of the law, all deserving of eternal damnation, such considerations and arguments would make the operation of any system of human justice impossible. Forgiveness of sins and the salvation of souls were God’s jobs, while the task of the magistrate, his deputy on earth, was the preservation of order through the exemplary punishment of sin and criminality; … (665)

The play is revealing here a potentially very serious contradiction within contemporary notions of good government: juxtaposing, if you like, the rather wintry absolutist pessimism of King James’s True Law of Free Monarchies (what one might term the case for Nero) with the altogether different feel-good moralism of the Basilikon Doron (what we might term the case for Constantine). In the former, James, like Angelo, had argued in effect that in a fallen world the exercise of secular authority and judgment must proceed and be accepted as legitimate whatever the internal spiritual or moral state of the judge (or juror). That was a minimum position, used by political theorists like James, to prove the illegitimacy of resistance to constituted authority under even the most appalling of circumstances. But while James might want to prove the legitimacy of the authority wielded by the likes of Saul or Neo and to assert the continuing obligation of their subjects to obey them, even at the height of their misrule, he had no wish to cast himself as a tyrant. Rather, James presented and no doubt saw himself as he argued princes should be in the Basilikon Doron. For there he claimed that the temperance and virtue of the ruler’s life and soul should, and indeed would, be mirrored in the quality of his external rule. (665)

No more than James I did Angelo wish either to see or see himself as a tyrant and a hypocrite, a ruler and justice and severity of whose public judgements were belied by his personal corruption. Thus, in replying to Isabel’s and Escalus’s pleas that he examine his own soul before he condemn Claudio, rather than have recourse to James’s minimum position, he tries (against with James) to have his cake and eat it. Rather than merely explaining that his own moral standing, his status as a fallen human, has nothing to do either with his own exercise of the office of secular judge or magistrate or with the question of Claudio’s guilt in the eyes of the law, Angelo continues to pursue the chimera of godly rule, offering to guarantee the godliness and justice of his proceedings by submitting his own conduct to the same human laws and penalties that he is now applying to Claudio… (II, I, 27-31). …It represents a huge theoretical hostage to fortune, undermining, at a stroke, the coherence of his (and James’s) position of the legitimacy and utility of the rule even of tyrants like Nero, which had previously underpinned his dialectical victories over the arguments for mercy deployed by both Isabel and Escalus. (666)

Angelo is, in effect, saying that if he were to prove guilty of Claudio’s crime he should be subject to precisely the same legal penalty and die the same death on the scaffold. This is either bravado or a de facto abdication from the position of sovereign ruler that the Duke had earlier conferred upon him. For, as James I himself repeatedly pointed out, while princes were, of course, subject to the dictates and sanctions of both natural and divine law, as, of course, they were to the sovereignty of God, they could not be said to be subject to either human law or to any earthly authority. As sovereigns, there was no authority on earth to which they could be said to be answerable and, hence, there was no superior judge (save God) able to apply the rules and sanctions of any law at all to their conduct, be it never so bad. (666)

Of this view, the overweening pretensions to personal virtue, public purity and moral reformation of the Duke and Angelo can, given the corruption of human nature, only end in injustice and tyranny. Here, while the pessimism of James’s True Law is endorsed, the moral aspirations of the Basilikon Doron are called into question. James is not only being warned about the disastrous consequences of puritan attempts at further reformation; some of his own dearest illusions are also being challenged. (666)

On one level, this turnaround on Claudio’s part funs entirely with the grain of contemporary expectation and convention. As the Duke/Friar later explains to Escalus, while Claudio ‘most willingly humbles himself to the determination of justice…yet had he framed to himself, by the instruction of his frailty, many deceiving promises of life, which I, by my good leisure, have discredited to him; and now he is resolved to die’ (III, ii, 236-42). Here, we might conclude, is a damning comment on the spiritually deleterious effects of a promiscuous use of the pardoning power by the secular magistrate. According to such a view, true Christian charity, for those in secular authority at least, means the capture, condemnation and punishment of offenders. (668)

We know the parallel between the Calvinist version of divine sovereignty and the conduct of a secular monarch who rules in the same way was current among those who wished to argue that Calvinist orthodoxy rendered God a tyrant, indeed almost the author of sin. Any prince, this argument ran, who treated his subjects as the Calvinist God treated fallen humanity would quite rightly be reviled as a tyrant. .. Of course, the stock reply to such parallels was that God was precisely not just another (human) prince and that to seek to judge his actions, attributes and nature by the puny criteria of fallen human reason and justice was [669] farcical and could not only lead to blasphemy and error. (669-670)

And yet the possibility remains that Shakespeare was using the situation and arguments dramatized in the relations between Claudio, Isabel and Angelo to articulate an alternative, un- or even anti- Calvinist view of the relations between the mercy and justice of God, between a fallen humanity and an omnipotent and both just and merciful deity. … The puritan presumption and pride displayed by Angelo throughout the play was, of course, based ultimately on the doctrine of predestination. It was because they were elect, because they had received a divine grace, granted them by God through no merit of their own, that the godly were the godly; that is a group set apart from their lukewarm, irreligious, corrupt or secular-minded contemporaries, able both to discern and judge the sins of the ungodly while themselves achieving levels of personal godliness and sanctity unavailable to others. Of course, as with all fallen humanity, they remained subject to sin in this life, but, under the influence of divine grace, they were able to fight an increasingly successful battle against their own corruption, showing, through the progress of this process of sanctification, that they were indeed elect saints. (670)

Thus the truly elect were so forever, they could not fall from grace but would persevere and be saved. True grace could never be lost, and those who had experienced its workings could be assured of their own salvation—hence, it might be thought, the spiritual pride and presumption displayed throughout by the ‘precise’, ‘the outward sainted’ Angelo. (670)

But while Angelo’s experience of his own fleshly and sinful nature might destroy his sense of himself as an elect saint, immune to the temptations and faults that afflict the run of fallen humanity, it does not prompt real self-knowledge or genuine repentance. / On the contrary, the pride and self-love that, as he admits at one point, have always underlain his outward saint-seeming severity are not destroyed but merely displaced. His sin made known to the world, denied his former stance as an elect saint, he seeks not repentance, he sues not for the exercise of mercy, human or even divine, but for the comfortable oblivion of an instant death. … (V, I, 364-71) … (V, I, 468-75). These are Angelo’s last words in the [671] play and stand surely as a sign of the continuing spiritual pride typical of the puritan; rather than submit himself as a suppliant sinner to the throne of human and divine judgment and mercy, Angelo presumes to continue in his role as a godlike judge, judging himself and thus avoiding the shame of public judgment and repentance. On this view, his eventual reprieve by the Duke is itself both an act of mercy and a punishment for his pride and vainglory, forcing him to confront the fact of his own sin and mend his ways, learning humility, discipline and real chastity in and through marriage to the jilted Mariana. (671-2)

Modern critics (not without reason) have tended to see her enthusiastic embrace of a martyr’s death as preferable to a life saved by sexual profanation as some sort of subconscious sado-masochistic come-on directed at Angelo. But can we not also discern certain catholicizing religious connotations and resonances operating in the overheated language of the speech in question? Isabel’s boat that ‘Th’ impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,/ And strip myself to death as in [673] a bed/ That lognign hath been sick for, ere I’d yield/ My body up to shame’ (II, iv, 101-04) can surely be taken as an evocation of certain contemporary (particularly catholic) sensualized, indeed highly sexualized, visions of martyrdom. There is a spiritual presumption at least the equal of Angelo’s at work here, although Isabel’s is born of the pharisaical works righteousness of the would-be nun and martyr rather than that of the godly magistrate. Both aspire to usurp the role of God: Angelo as a God-like magistrate, administering an unforgiving law against a fallen humanity; Isabel as a Christ-like intercessor. (673-4)

All this, of course, is the Duke/Friar’s doing and it may be taken to represent a sort of spiritual education, a crash course in humility and Christian charity, a kind of taming of the nun. Through the Duke’s duplicity, having at least learned the value of real charity, Isabel ends up pleading for the life of the man she takes to be her brother’s killer, someone at least as guilty as Claudio of the foul offence (fornication) for which (as she still believes at this point) her brother has lost his life. [674] … Her final reward/lesson consists in having her vision of chastity and personal sanctity as sexual abstinence and her consequent aspirations to a personal and spiritual autonomy and charisma (attributes, we should remember, that she hoped to acquire through the savage spiritual and physical disciplines of the Clares) finally crushed by the Duke’s proposal of marriage. (674-5)

As such, we might view Angelo and Isabel as two limiting cases of Christian rigorism—the one ‘puritan’, the other ‘catholic’, but both united in their different ways by a pharisaical legalism and spiritual pride. … Is there a stable middle position on offer in the play? Has Shakespeare been reading Hooker? Is the play a piece of ‘Anglican’ apologetic? Perhaps, but, if so, the nature of the Anglican via media is left familiarly vague. What we can say with certainty is that Shakespeare comes across in this play as a decidedly anti-puritan author, entirely familiar with, if not unequiv-[675] ocally favorable to, a variety of distinctively catholic forms of belief and devotion. And if neither of the extreme, catholic and puritan, positions, staged in the play emerges unscathed, we are left in no real doubt as to which is the most dangerous, hypocritical and aggressive. For where the play trounces Angelo’s pretensions to godliness, leaving him beginning for death, it at most chides and corrects those of Isabel, who in a wonderfully ironic twist ends up getting the prince. What seems to be happening here is that out of the ideological, theological and moral materials lying around post-reformation England (many of which, as both Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy have point out, were decidedly ‘catholic’), the play constructs a militantly anti-puritan, possibly even anti-Calvinist, but definitively not Roman catholic, post-reformation synthesis. The last word on the matter should probably be left to that decidedly catholic-sounding libertine Lucio: ‘Grace is grace despite all controversy’ (I, ii, 24-25). (675-6)

On the face of it, both method and end could scarcely be more satisfactory for what we might take to be royal purposes. The play concludes in a way seemingly ideally suited to James’s view of himself as a Solomonic bringer of peace and order to his new kingdom. For order is restored and the different sub-plots and story lines are all brought to tidy conclusions by the Duke/Friar as he increasingly intervenes in the events that his retirement from office has set in motion, until finally he unmasks himself, takes back his God-given powers as prince and doles out true justice to his various subjects. (676)

The fact that the play is organized around two issues of central concern to James is surely not an accident. Of these, the first and most obvious was, of course, the puritan and other schemes for the reformation of the church and commonwealth with which the King had been deluged upon his coming into England. The second involved legal questions about the relation between the laws of the land and the laws of God and nature and the mediating role of the royal prerogative in squaring the often divergent demands of these different codes. ‘Tyranny’ or ‘injustice’ here resided not in the capacity of the monarch to interfere, mitigate or even entirely to suspend the penalties and judgments of the law of the land, but rather in the absence of such a power. As Angelo’s prosecution of the letter of the law against Claudio shows, the law itself could prove a tyrant if its dictates were followed blindly. If the law were to produce true justice then its application had to be tempered by a superior monarchical authority, itself unbound by human laws… It is this power that the Duke confers on Angelo at the outset, telling him expressly that he now enjoys the authority ‘So to enforce or qualify the laws/ As to your soul seems good’ (I, I, 64-5); a prerogative power that is surely the quintessence of that ‘absolute power and place here in Vienna’ with which Angelo is endowed (I, iii, 13). (677)

Of course, necessary as they are to the common good, such monarchical powers and prerogatives can be abused, as Angelo’s attempt to pervert the course of justice in order to have his evil way with Isabel shows. As the latter observes of Angelo’s tyranny: ‘O perilous mouths,/ That bear in them one and the self-same tongue,/ Either of condemnation or aproof,/ Bidding the law make curtsey to their will, [677] Hooking both right and wrong to th’ appetite,/ To follow as it draws!’ (II, iv, 171-6). In short, the powers essential to good government and Christian monarchy can turn into the essence of its opposite, tyranny, if they are used to pursue the personal lusts and interests of the ruler rather than the interests of the common good and the laws of God and nature. The fault, however, the ‘tyranny’, lies not in the powers themselves but in the way in which they are exercised. (677-8)

Tyranny is far more likely to proceed from the hypocritical, pharisaical pride of the godly than from the rule of a true Christian prince. … Applying, suspending and mitigating the punishments and judgments of the law with dizzying speed and moral certainty, the Duke distributes pardons and punishments, indeed pardons that are in themselves punishments, in ways that perfectly suit the moral failings of the various characters. Thus, in the case of Lucio and Angelo, the death penalty is denounced against them and then rescinded in a matter of minutes; the royal power of pardon is being used here for the moral betterment of his subjects and the maintenance of the moral and social unity of the commonwealth. James I had used just such a last-minute pardon to dramatize the nature of royal power and the extent of royal mercy in his treatment of some of the Bye and Main plotters. Indeed, in a pamphlet describing the incident, great play was made with the lengths to which the King had gone to extract the maximum theatrical effect from these events by delaying the pardon for as long as possible and using a Scottish messenger, unknown to the executing authorities, to keep the royal intentions a secret to the last moment. (678)

Thus both Lucio and Angelo’s expressed preference for death—to avoid shame, in the former’s case, involved a marriage to a prostitute and, in the latter’s, of living with his own now publicly known moral turpitude—are disregarded. … In all this, balanceing the divergent claims to moral seriousness, social harm and hence to human punishment of the sins of aversion against those of concupiscence is central to the Duke’s performance, which proceeds against the grain of the value system espoused by many of the other characters in the play. For the one thing that Isabel, Angelo, Lucio and even Elbow all have in common is a conviction that chastity and/or sexual honor of opprobrium and blame, the public reputations associated with and produced by the sins of concupiscence, are at the centre of the moral, social and, in Isabel’s case at least, the religious universe. (679)

Certainly, if we turn to the way in which the Duke in fact establishes or reestablishes order and to the type of order the he re-establishes, we find rather less of the divine about it than the reading assayed above would allow. Far from exercising a God-like providential control over the doings of his subjects, the Duke spends most of his time desperately trying to catch up with and control a sequence of events set off by his own decision to cede power to Angelo in the first place. His interventions, while ultimately providential, come very close to miscarrying altogether. Up until the last minute, having set up Angelo with Mariana/Isabel, the Duke/Friar expects his deputy to pardon Claudio. When he does not, the wheels all but come off the wagon. (682)

The Duke’s clerical career is, on this evidence, a bust; he has failed effectively to carry out his spiritual functions, and his plans to pull the rabbit of justice out of the hat of Angelo’s corrupt skullduggery are rescued only be an accident, a genuine providence that owes everything to the exercise of divine sovereignty through apparently contingent and unconnected happenings and nothing to the Duke’s own puny capacity to foresee and control events. (683)

…the Duke is precisely not playing providence’s role, manipulating, like the all-seeing demi-god of Angelo’s guilty imaginings, the plots and purposes of lesser mortals to some higher end. This, of course, is not for want of trying on his part, but despite his best intentions and efforts he, like the others, is revealed as a mere play-thing of providence, his own plans and stratagems entirely at the mercy of a genuinely all-seeing and all-powerful God. (684)

As we have seen, the return of order at the end of the play is figured through two ducal activities—the dispensation of justice and the rather promiscuous use of the prerogative power of pardon, on the one hand, and the arranged marriage, on the other. / To take the first. If, as we stated at the outset, the contemporary ideal of the way in which secular and divine justice and mercy, the powers of minister and magistrate, should interact to control crime and re-establish order was to be found in the basic plot line of the murder narratives, then the Duke’s efforts at the end of the play can be taken as seriously subversive of the assumptions that underlay that narrative and the development of those assumptions in the puritan fantasy of further reformation or godly rule. For felons were supposed to be detected, tried, sentenced and punished by the secular magistrate. Therein consisted human justice. They were also, at certain crucial points throughout this process, to be exposed to the council of the ministers of God, who were to labour to win them to an acknowledgment of their crime and thence to true repentance… The use of the royal pardon had no very obvious part to play in all this. No matter how repentant, the felon should be punished: in part for the edification of others and the maintenance of order, and in part because the real pardoning power, real mercy, belonged to God, who alone could be relied upon to know whether a felon’s repentance was true and his or her soul was thus really saved or not. (684)

The one truly and unequivocally guilty person, the comically unrepentant murderer Barnardine, his determinedly reprobate carnality having defeated the best efforts even of the Duke/Friar to win him round, not to a saving repentance but to a decent sobriety in the face of death, also gets off scot-free. Barnardine, on this reading, far from being a peripheral even incidental figure, becomes central. His fate represents a crucial defeat for the standard murder-pamphlet; a crucial example, even at the end, of the intransigence and intractability of the carnivalesque body in the face of the forces of control and reform. (685)

Allowing Angelo to, as it were, conduct a controlled experiment in puritan government on his behalf, the Duke can observe the consequences of the new policy from the jails and the streets, acting as a confessor, spiritual counselor and eminence grise to all the characters in the play. It is, of course, the knowledge he gains through his role as a spiritual counselor in the prison that enables the Duke/Friar to set things to rights at the end of the play. But while he gains knowledge in the persona of a priest, he can only put things to rights in the persona of a prince. (685)

Unable to discharge both roles simultaneously, he can be either a friar or a duke but never both at the same time. / This is surely no accident. For all the Erastian power of the post-reformation English monarchy, even the most extravagant apologists for the English crown were adamant that princes were not and could not be priests; the spiritual powers and insights of the ghostly counselor, the role played with such enthusiasm by the Duke/Friar in the prison, were entirely closed to them. (686)

One might construe this as one more act of flattery directed at King James: combining the roles of priest and king, the Duke acts providentially to frustrate the corrupt plans of his (puritan) subjects. Overcoming the overly polarized version of the magistrate and the minister’s powers purveyed by the godly, the Duke comes to the rescue. What better figure could there be for that self-styled Solomon, James I, prophet, judge and king, God’s deputy or vicegerent in both church and state? And yet if Shakespeare were attempting, in the character of the Duke, some sort of hyperbolic figuration of the golden age of order, justice and good government that James, as head of church and state, was about to initiate, he might surely have found rather more flattering and ideologically coherent ways to do so than through the slightly desperate maneuverings of the Duke/Friar. / To say the least, standing down in favor of a raging puritan zealot while all the time hiding out in prison as a priest was scarcely a serious blueprint for a Christian prince anxious either to restore his realm to order or to exercise some sort of modernizing psychotyranny over his subjects. (686)

From the very outset of the play Shakespeare goes out of his way to establish both the Duke and Isabel’s sexual virtue and chastity. … Again, in reply to Lucio’s comic representation of the Duke as some sort of drunken lecher, the Duke/Friar observes primly: ‘I have never heard the absent duke much detected for women; he was not inclined that way’ (III, ii, 118-19). (688)

Thus, for all its (typically Jacobean) talk of temperance—the Duke at one point is described as ‘a gentleman of all temperance’ and temperance was perhaps the central virtue enjoined by James to his son in the Basilikon Doron—for all its toying with a variety of via medias between puritan and catholic styles of religious rigorism, between lustful fornication and sexual abstinence, between value systems dominated by the sins of aversion and those of concupiscence, between vengefully just and mercifully lax regimes, between the case for Nero and the case for Solomon, it could be argued that the play, in fact, achieves no settled middle way in any of these realms. Its ultimate surface message seems to be: if you want good temperate government, your best bet is to trust temperate, wise and absolute rulers like the Duke. But the Duke to be trusted is not the one we were shown at the start of the play who was, we should remember, obsessed with the loose moral condition of his realm and toying with puritan schemes for reformation and repression. On the contrary, we are to trust a Duke now educated in the limits and nature of secular government, and the sorts of moral reformation and social control to which secular authority can aspire in this life, by his protracted exposure to the precisian and catholicizing religious rigorsim of Angelo and Isabel. (698)


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