Bawdy court drama in Puritan England
Shakespeare’s problematic comedy Measure for Measure explores many of early modern England’s anxieties about illicit sex
It is necessary at this present to entreat of the sin of whoredom and fornication…’ begins a 16th-century Sermon of Whoredom and Uncleannes: against adultery. Sermons like this and a number of pamphlets and treatises against the sin of lust reveal an increasing anxiety in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean England about illicit sex.
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is preoccupied to some extent with the early modern debate about how far sexual behaviour could be regulated and legislated. Of particular concern was lechery, which had a rather elastic definition in this period. In A Sum of Christian Doctrine (1555), it is defined as ‘an inordinate appetite of unclean and libidinous pleasure. And it bringeth forth blindness of mind, inconsideration, inconstancy … love of himself, hatred of God, too much desire of this life, a horror of death and future judgement…’ Lechery was one of the deadly sins.
‘His contempt for sexual offences was so great that he proposed that those convicted should be ‘cauterized, and seared with a hot iron on the cheek, forehead or some other part’
In the 1580s and 1590s Puritans were furiously lashing out against every kind of pastime and pleasure they saw which could lead to damnation, including play going, gambling, feasting, drinking, festive rites, the fashion for ‘sumptuous’ or ‘brave’ attire, cosmetics and periwigs – all of which could turn people towards sin and lust rather than piety. The Puritan Philip Stubbes, for instance, excoriated his fellow countrymen and women for their excessive pride and vanity and their taste for sex.
He advocated harsh penalties for fornication and adultery (including death). His contempt for sexual offences was so great that he proposed that those convicted should be ‘cauterized, and seared with a hot iron on the cheek, forehead or some other part’. Stubbes was annoyed with authorities who, he argues, would ‘wink at fornication or else as looking through their fingers, they see it, and will not see it’.
It is not unlikely that Shakespeare and other playwrights knew of Stubbes’s work, because some of the speeches in this play seem to allude to Stubbes’s language – particularly the confession that the statutes and most biting laws are ‘more mocked than feared’. The satirist and playwright, Thomas Nashe, mocked this puritanical obsession with abstention. Stubbes’s tract was called The Anatomie of Abuses, whereas Nashe called his The Anatomie of Absurdity, accusing extremists like Stubbes of a ‘pretence of purity’ and suggesting that the excessive repression of desire can only backfire.
How can you deny, he seems to wonder, the basic requirements of the human condition? Nashe finds it hard to trust the sincerity of Puritans who cry out against banquets and feasts, for example, ‘as though they had been brought up all the days of their life with bread and water’. In Shakespeare’s play, Angelo’s loss of control and his lecherous demands upon Isabella suggest a similar attitude to Puritan abstention.
‘One 16th-century gynaecology treatise theorised that women seemed to need sex because of their ‘natural’ biological deficiencies – namely, they had no fully developed penis’
The suppression of sexual impulses, advocated vehemently by the Puritans, was viewed in some of the medical literature in early modern England as potentially dangerous to the health of the body. One 16th-century gynaecology treatise theorised that women seemed to need sex because of their ‘natural’ biological deficiencies – namely, they had no fully developed penis; while the disease of womb hysteria, according to one contemporary medical manual, reflects an ‘immoderate and unbridled desire to copulate, so strong and unquenchable that the woman appears mad and delirious as a result of this excessive and insatiable appetite’.
It seems then, that the moralistic literature which preached abstention contradicted the medical literature that warned against disease and humoral imbalances caused by the suppression of biologically produced impulses. These texts did not, however, advocate rampant sexual behaviour. Instead marriage was seen as the solution. People needed sex to be healthy and needed to be married to have sex.
But moral transgression was a reality. Adultery, fornication, promiscuity, prostitution and a range of other human inclinations were a growing concern for the Church and civic authorities. We might wonder how real the threat of Claudio’s execution might have felt for an early modern audience. We know that most cases related to marital misdemeanours would be heard in the ecclesiastical courts, sometimes known as the ‘bawdy courts’.
‘Although for several decades, public whipping was a documented penalty for fornication, the death penalty for sexual transgression was never properly established’
There was no death penalty, as such, for cases of fornication or adultery, even though for several years from the late 16th to the mid-17th centuries bills were submitted to Parliament in the hopes of making the punishment for adultery, at least, punishable by death. Although for several decades, public whipping was a documented penalty for fornication, the death penalty for sexual transgression was never properly established. It is perhaps why Angelo’s sentence upon Claudio seems all the more extreme and why it requires extreme measures taken by the Duke and Isabella to rescue Claudio.
It is too simplistic to say that Shakespeare is deliberately ridiculing the Puritan manifesto through the character of Angelo. More important than simply mocking religious extremism is the fact that Shakespeare places lechery in opposition to renaissance virtue. There is no one character that does not have the potential for virtuous action and Shakespeare puts each character to the test. Virtue was not just a synonym for chastity or virginity; rather it was a state of being.
In his political treatise, Basilikon Doron, King James I advises future princes (namely his son) about the value of tempering justice with mercy, the importance of being an example to others and demonstrating Christian virtue at every moment: It is a true old saying, That a King is as one set on a stage, whose smallest actions and gestures, all the people gapingly do behold … Be careful then, my Son, so to frame all of your indifferent actions and outward behaviour, as they may serve for the furtherance and forth-setting of your inward virtuous disposition.
In most of the books about how to be an ideal prince, virtue is seen to be one of the chief characteristics. It is something that comes from within; but it can also be cultivated. According to neo-platonic theory, it appears as a kind of light or glow emanating from the eyes and through the complexion; it is revealed through gestures and in the voice (through song and discourse). Virtue was the trait that made a woman beautiful. It could inspire admiration, love and even desire as countless renaissance love poems suggest. Definitions of feminine virtue took into account chastity but, as in the case of masculine virtue, it was also contingent upon Christian dignity, intelligence and the art of reason.
The ideal of virtue hovers in a play that dramatises what can happen when authority is either too lax or too harsh. It offers an alternative to swinging dangerously from one extreme interpretation of justice to the other. The discovery, reformation and examples of virtue we witness in Measure for Measure provide an antidote to the lechery and corruption of the city and the state, but they also serve to temper what Shakespeare might have viewed as the cruel severity and sinister dangers of religious fundamentalism.