David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’: A Retelling in Prose”

The servant entered the room and said, “Isabella, a nun, wants to see you.”

“Show her the way,” Angelo replied.

The servant departed to bring Isabella, who was wearing the clothing of a novice in a nunnery, to Angelo.

Angelo said to himself, “Oh, Heavens! Why does my blood run to my heart, making it unable to function and also depriving all of my other parts of its life-giving functions? It is like way too many soldiers rushing to one place, thereby crowding themselves so much that they are unable to fight and leaving other places undefended.

“Foolish throngs of people do much the same thing when someone faints. They all come to help him, and so they keep from him the air by which he should revive.

“Also similar is when the general public, subjects to a well-liked King, all stop what they are doing and crowd around him in flattering fondness, ignorant of what etiquette requires. Their uncouth love necessarily appears offensive.”

Isabella entered the room.

Angelo said, “How are you, fair maiden?”

“I have come to know what you will do about my brother,” Isabella said. “I have come to know your pleasure.”

“It would much better please me if you knew my pleasure than to demand to know from me what my pleasure is,” Angelo said, thinking of his sexual pleasure.

He added, “Your brother cannot live.”

“So be it,” Isabella said. “May Heaven keep your honor!”

“Yet your brother may live awhile longer, and, perhaps, he may live as long as you or me, but still he must die.”

All of us are mortal; we will die at some time.

“You are willing to delay implementing the sentence that requires my brother’s death?” Isabella asked.


“Please tell me when his death will happen,” Isabella said. “During the reprieve from death, whether the reprieve be long or short, he can take steps to prepare for physical death so that he will not suffer spiritual death. I want his soul to be healthy when his body dies.”

“Damn these filthy vices!” Angelo said. “Murder and fornication are equally filthy. A murderer steals a man who has already been made. A fornicator, by creating a pregnancy, creates an illicit image of God, in whose image we are all created. It is as easy to take away the life of a true image of God as it is to create a life that is an illicit and counterfeit image of God. Pardoning the one type of sinner is the same as pardoning the other type of sinner. If I pardon a fornicator, I might as well pardon a murderer.”

“It is set down so in Heaven,” Isabella said, “but not on Earth. Heaven regards murder and bringing a bastard into the world as equally sins, but we humans on Earth do not.”

“Do you think so?” Angelo said. “Then I shall pose to you a question to be answered quickly. Which would you prefer: The very just law now takes your brother’s life, or, to redeem him, you give up your body to such sweet uncleanness as the woman has whom he has stained with his lust?”

“Sir, believe this, I prefer to give my body than my soul. I would rather lose my mortal body than my immortal soul.”

“I am not talking about your soul. Sins that we are compelled to commit are not truly sins. They are recorded in Heaven’s book, but we are not punished for them.”

“Do you really believe that?” Isabella asked.

“No, I will not say that I do,” Claudio replied. “I can play the Devil’s advocate in order to test the people I speak to. I can think of arguments to support both sides. I am trained in law.

“But answer this. I, who am the voice and enforcer of the recorded law, have pronounced a sentence on your brother’s life. Might there not be a charity in a sin that would save this brother’s life?”

Claudio, of course, was attempting to get Isabella to commit fornication with him in order to save her brother’s life. To persuade her, he was trying to make her think of the fornication in this particular situation as being a good deed and a charitable act rather than a sin.

“Please do such a sin,” Isabella replied. “I’ll swear on my soul that it is no sin at all, but charity.”

Isabella was misunderstanding Claudio. She thought the charitable act/sin was pardoning Claudio although he was guilty.

“If you would be willing to do this at the peril of your soul,” Claudio said, referring to Isabella committing fornication with him, “sin and charity would be equally balanced.”

Isabella again misunderstood Claudio. She thought that he was referring to her begging for her brother’s life although her brother was guilty.

Isabella replied, “I do beg for my brother’s life. If that is a sin, may Heaven let me bear it!

“I hope that you will grant my suit and pardon my brother. If pardoning my brother is sin, I’ll make it my prayer every morning to have it added to my own sins so that the punishment of that sin will not fall on you.”

“You are not understanding me,” Angelo said. “What you think I am not saying is not what I am actually saying. Either you really are ignorant of what I am saying, or you are deliberately appearing to be ignorant of it, and that’s not good.”

“Let me be ignorant, and let me be in nothing good,” Isabella said. “I wish to avoid the sin of pride. I wish to have the divine grace and humility to know I am no better than ignorant and sinful.”

“Wisdom wishes to appear brightest when it criticizes itself,” Angelo said. “A beauty covered by a black mask has her beauty proclaimed ten times louder than it would be if her beauty were displayed.

“But listen to me. So that you will certainly understand me, I will speak plainly, openly, and bluntly: Your brother is to die.”

“That is true.”

“And his offence is therefore, so it appears, accountable to the law. That is why he is to die.”

“True,” Isabella said.

“Let us say that there is no other way to save his life — I am not saying that this is true, or that there exists any way to save his life, but I am postulating it for the sake of argument — except that you, his sister, finding yourself sexually desired by a person who, because of his influence with the judge or because of his own great position in society, could release your brother from the manacles of the all-binding law, and that there were no other Earthly way to save him, but that either you lay down the treasures of your body and give up your virginity to this person, or let your brother die. What would you do?”

“I would do as much for my poor brother as I would do for myself,” Isabella replied. “That is, were I sentenced to be beaten and die, the bloody marks left by keen whips I would wear as I would rubies, and I would strip myself to go to my grave as if I were preparing myself to go to my bed that I have been greatly longing for. I would give up my life before I would yield my body up to shame.”

“In that case, your brother must die.”

“And if he dies, it is the better bargain,” Isabella said. “It is better for a brother to die at once, than for a sister, by redeeming him by committing fornication, to die and be damned forever.”

“Wouldn’t you then be as cruel as the sentence of death that you have so slandered and criticized?”

“Ignominy in ransom and a free pardon without conditions are two different things. Lawful mercy such as a free pardon is not at all like foul redemption — the redemption of one person being dependent upon the sin of another person.”

“You seemed recently to consider the law a tyrant, and you seemed to argue that the sliding of your brother into sin was more a frivolous triviality than a vice,” Claudio said.

“Pardon me, my lord. It often happens that to get what we want, we do not speak what we really believe. I somewhat did excuse the thing I hate — fornication — in order to help my brother, whom I dearly love, keep his life.”

“We are all morally frail,” Angelo said.

“If we are not all morally frail, then let my brother die,” Isabella replied. “If he is not a mere accomplice among many accomplices, but instead he is the only one who owns and inherits the weakness that you have mentioned, then he should die.”

“No, women are morally frail, too,” Angelo said.

“Yes, women are as frail as the mirrors where they view themselves, mirrors that are as easily broken as they make reflections of the forms standing in front of them. Women! May Heaven help them! Men, who are created in the image of God, mar their creation and debase themselves when they take advantage of women. Call us women ten times morally frail because we are as soft as our bodies are, and we are susceptible to being seduced and giving birth to illegitimate children.”

“I think that what you said is correct,” Angelo said. “And from this testimony of your own sex — since I suppose we are made to be not so strong that we cannot be shaken by temptation — let me be bold and say that I believe your own words. Be that which you are — that is, be a woman who is capable of having children. If you are more than a woman, then you are not a woman. But if you are a woman, as your exterior clearly shows that you are, then show that you are a woman now by putting on the destined livery. Wear me and bear me.”

Angelo meant that Isabella should embrace him and bear his weight.

“I have no tongue — no language — but one, my gentle lord,” Isabella said. “Let me entreat you to speak the language that I speak.”

“Plainly conceive, I love you,” Angelo said. “Take off your nun’s clothing and have sex with me.”

“My brother loved Juliet, and you tell me that he shall die because he loved Juliet.”

“He shall not die, Isabella, if you give me love and have sex with me.”

“I know your virtue has a license in it,” Isabella replied. “You can pretend to be fouler than you are in order to uncover the faults of other people. You may be testing me.”

“Believe me, on my honor, when I say that my words express my purpose. I am saying exactly what I mean.”

“You have little honor although it is widely believed that you have much honor,” Isabella said. “What you want is pernicious and wicked. What is good about you is appearance, not reality. I will proclaim to everyone what you really are, Angelo. I mean it. Sign for me an immediate pardon for my brother, or with a wide-open throat I’ll shout to the world what kind of man you are.”

“Who will believe you, Isabella?” Angelo said. “My name and reputation are unsoiled, my manner of life is austere, and my position in the government is high. I will make a formal statement against you. That and these other things will outweigh your accusation against me. Your own report will choke you, and you will get a reputation for slander. I have begun to feel sexual desire, and now I give my sensuality the rein and let it gallop. Force yourself to consent to my sharp appetite. Set aside all your modesty and your too lengthy blushes; both would have me give up my desire, but both inflame my desire.

“Redeem your brother and save his life by yielding up your body to my lust, or else he must not only die, but your unkindness shall draw out his death — he will be tortured for a long time before he dies.

“Come to me later and give me what I want, or by the passion that now guides me most, I’ll prove to be a tyrant to him. As for you, say what you will, my false outweighs your true.”

Claudio departed, leaving Isabella alone.

Isabella said to herself, “To whom should I complain? If I were to tell people this, who would believe me? Some mouths are perilous; they bear in them one tongue that condemns at one time and approves at another time the same thing, forcing the law to curtsy to and obey their will. These mouths use their appetite to decide what is right and what is wrong.

“I will go to my brother. Although he has fallen under pressure from his sexual urges, yet he has in him such a mind of honor that, had he twenty heads to put down on twenty bloody blocks so that they can all be cut off, he would yield them up before he would allow his sister to stoop her body to such abhorred pollution. Therefore, Isabella, live chaste, and, brother, die. My chastity is more valuable than my brother. I’ll tell him of Angelo’s request that I commit fornication, and I will bid him prepare his mind for death and his soul’s rest.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

The above is an excerpt from my FREE book William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here:







Free PDF book: William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce


The paperback is for sale here:


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