All’s Well That Ends Well–Act I

Thanks for you patience, guys! That was s long unintentional hiatus.

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If I were asked to summarize what this play is “about” from only reading the first act, I would tell you, among other things:

  1. The playing out of the next generation
  2. Inherited rank versus inherited merit
  3. How virtues imbued in birth are ramified by good action

Insofar as I am concerned about the first point, the very first line of the play revolves around the death of the head of household of the first generation, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” (I.i.1). Not to mention, love of Bertram replaces the love that Helena had for her father after his death. And, well, the rest of my point is made with the last two.

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The cause of Helena’s despair over Bertram revolves heavily in my second point. She loves a man that outranks her in birth. Clearly she’s a pretty feisty, smart, rad lady, and she’s the main heroine of a Shakespeare comedy, which means that she’s one of those ladies you marry the instant you meet her. And we have evidence of that by the countess’ comment, “…her education promises her dispositions she inherits which makes fair gifts fairer; for where an unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, there commendations go with pity; they are virtues and traitors too” (I.i.39-42).

Sadly, I’m pressed for time, as per usual, but I wanted to get back on schedule, at least a little bit.

I’ll leave you with this last line from Helena (I’m not getting into the roots of her name–Helen–and what I think it says about her):  “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,/Which we ascribe to heaven” (I.i.216).  Natural disposition cultivated in action?

We’ll see tomorrow.

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Measure for Measure–Act II

Anything I said defending Angelo in my last post, I take back right now. I am livid. I’ve never been so inflamed.

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Before I go raging about Angelo, I want to make a point about Elbow. I was reminded of Dogberry, in the way he can’t seem to understand the words that he uses, and I am beginning to see a reason for it. There are those in Shakespeare plays that are very good talkers, but that we never should trust–Richard III, Don John, Edmund, to name a few. “Beware of slick talkers,” my professor in Rome used to say. And I think this way of talking is revealing also in the third scene of this play, when Isabella begins by speaking “coldly.” I think it is her humility that keeps her from speaking properly in the beginning. I am going to try to focus on speaking more throughout the rest of my readings, regardless if I am right or wrong about this point.

One more point before my rage overtakes me. Escalus’ little rhyming couplet at the end of scene one. “Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so;/Pardon is still the nurse of second woe” (II.i.278-279). This is the beginning of a point I want to make about the differences between Isabella and Angelo, the point being that there is a distinction here between earthly understanding of mercy and a heavenly understanding of mercy. What I mean to say, is that Escalus’ statement here is an understanding of mercy that rests upon justice, while Isabella (and the Duke, when he speaks with Juliet) has an understanding of mercy that rests upon love.

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Isabella hits Antonio hard when she states,

                                               Go to your bosom,

Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know

That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess

A natural guiltiness, such as his,

Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue

Against my brother’s life.

She’s arguing from an understanding of mercy that a Pharisee can understand (“Let he among you without sin cast the first stone” sound familiar to anyone?). She speaks in earthly terms.

Is her virtue her downfall? Angelo claims her virtue is what drags him into the sin of wanting to love her (and not a proper love by any means). He seems to take her literally–if he sins as Claudio, he will show mercy to Claudio. Arghskjdafljdjknasdkfhadsfj.

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I’m actually not going to turn this into a big rage against Angelo. Instead, I won’t allow myself to dwell on his horribleness, but on Isabella’s virtue. She illustrates by her actions a concept that tends to be the subject of religious debate–can one commit a sin in order that good may be accomplished? The answer, if we follow Isabella, is no (and, if we read our catechism, that is the correct answer). This brings me back to the difference between the heavenly and earthly understanding of justice and mercy. Angelo’s “virtues” and notions are merely earthly, and the request of Isabella’s body in exchange for the life of her brother is a fair earthly trade. Mercy based on proportional justice. No good can come from the forfeit of ones soul, it isn’t a sacrifice to damn oneself to Hell so that one may be saved. It’s an act against Faith. Oh, and Chastity.

Until tomorrow.

Measure for Measure–Act I

Measure

Nuns!

The play begins with a temporary transfer of authority to Antonio, who, from his humble refusal at first, seems like a good dude. The first scene deals with Antonio’s good character, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. His harsh enforcement of the law stems from his adherence to justice. That’s not bad in and of itself. Now, the Duke reveals in scene three that he has failed to properly enforce the laws of his city, and to allow infractions against the law is not merely to allow evil, but to encourage it. “Sith ’twas my fault to give the people scope,/’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them/For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,/When evil deeds have their permissive pass,/And not the punishment” (I.iii.35-39).

I find it interesting that the law which we see enforced–Juliet being with-child out of wedlock with Claudio–is the sin that earlier is joked about with Mistress Overdone. Claudio’s account of liberty reveals the nature of sin. “Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,/A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die” (I.ii.128-130). There’s a tension here, methinks, between the laws of the commonweal and the laws of God. But there’s a distinct difference; the laws of the commonweal are based upon justice, “Measure for Measure” to steal the plays name, while the laws of God rest upon the justice of God, based upon love which is revealed in mercy.

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With that said, I’m curious if this tension of laws might be revealed also in the opening of scene four–the ‘lack of strictness’ in the Order of Saint Clare. The Poor Clare’s are a Franciscan order, which poses itself against the decadence of the age–and if we look at what is going on in the city of the play, there is quite a bit of decadence. Isabella points out her understanding of the order is much more strict than the little nun reveals to her. An order against decadence is not strict, the duke of the city is not strict in using authority–these smell like they are of similar stuff, so to speak–perhaps these similarities reveal more than might appear.

Post. Script. Isabella means God’s promise or devoted to God. I’m assuming her name will reveal itself to mean both by the time this play is over.

Until tomorrow!