William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 2

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— 1.2 —

On a street in Vienna, Lucio and two gentlemen talked.

Lucio said, “If the Duke of Vienna with the other Dukes does not reach an agreement with the King of Hungary, why then all the Dukes will fight the King.”

“Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!” the first gentleman said.

“Amen!” the second gentleman said.

Peace is a good thing for most people, but for a soldier it can be a bad thing. No war equals no work, no work equals no pay, and no pay equals no food. Unemployed soldiers in their society were often called Hungarians because they were hungry.

Lucio said to the second gentleman, “You speak like the sanctimonious pirate who went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but he erased one commandment out of the tablet.”

“Would that commandment be ‘Thou shalt not steal’?” the second gentlemen asked.

“Yes, that is the one he erased.”

The first gentleman said, “Why, it was a commandment that commanded the captain and all the others to not follow their occupations: They went to sea to steal. There’s not a soldier of us all who, in the prayer of thanksgiving said before a meal, relishes the petition that prays for peace.”

“I never heard of any soldier who dislikes it,” the second gentleman said.

“I believe you,” Lucio said to the second gentleman, “because I think that you have never been present when grace was said.”

“You don’t?” the second gentleman said. “I have heard a prayer said before a meal a dozen times at least.”

“The kind of grace that you heard said was in meter,” the first gentleman said. “For example: Rub-a-dub-dub; thanks for the grub. Yay, God!”

“I don’t think that you have ever heard grace in any form or in any language,” Lucio said to the second gentleman.

The first gentleman added, “Or in any religion.”

Often eager to contradict others, Lucio said to the first gentleman, “Well, why not? Grace is grace, despite all controversy; for example, you yourself are a wicked villain, despite all grace.”

Lucio had shifted the meaning of “grace” from “a prayer of thanksgiving before a meal” to “God’s mercy.”

The first gentleman said, “A pair of shears went between us.”

This image referred to scissors cutting a piece of cloth. In other words, the first gentleman was telling Lucio that they were both cut from the same cloth — both of them were wicked villains. Or, more simply, “Same to you, buddy!”

“I grant that a pair of shears went between us,” Lucio said. “I am the good velvet cloth; you are the raggedy edge of the cloth that was cut off and thrown away.”

“If you are velvet, you are good velvet,” the first gentleman said. “You are a three-piled, aka three-layered, piece of velvet, I promise you. I would rather be a piece of an English kersey cloth — a simple, ordinary Englishman — than to be piled, as you are piled, for a French velvet.”

The first gentleman was insulting Lucio. He was punning on the word “piled,” one of whose meanings in their society was to be bald. (“Pile” has as one meaning soft down, which can refer to the light fuzz on the head of a bald man.) Baldness was a side effect of a common treatment for the venereal disease syphilis, which was known as the French disease. A French velvet was slang for a French prostitute. In other words, the first gentleman was accusing Lucio of being infected with syphilis that he had gotten from a prostitute.

The first gentleman concluded by saying, “Do I speak feelingly now?”

By “feelingly,” the first gentleman meant “to the purpose,” but Lucio deliberately mistook it as meaning “with feeling.”

“I think that you do have feeling when you speak. I think that your mouth has the sores of venereal disease and each word you speak causes you to feel pain. I will drink to your health, but I will never drink out of a glass that you have drunk from lest I contract the disease from which you suffer.”

“I think I have done myself wrong, have I not?” the first gentleman said. “I should not have entered a contest of insults with Lucio. He always wins.”

“You have done yourself wrong,” the second gentleman said, “whether you are infected with venereal disease or not.”

“Look, look,” Lucio said. “Madam Mitigation comes!”

He was referring to Mistress Overdone, the proprietor of a whorehouse. She mitigated, or lessened, the sexual desire of the clients who visited her whorehouse. Her name was appropriate. To “do” a woman is to have sex with her, and whores are overdone.

Lucio said, “I have purchased as many diseases under her roof as come to —”

“To what, I ask,” the second gentleman said.

“Guess.”

“To three thousand dolors — or dollars — a year.”

“Yes, and more,” the first gentleman said.

“A French crown more,” Lucio said.

A French crown was a coin, but it also meant a bald head — a sign of someone suffering from the French disease.

The first gentleman said, “You are always saying that I am diseased, but you are wrong. I am healthy. I am sound.”

“I disagree that you are healthy,” Lucio said. “But I agree that you are sound in the way that hollow things resound when struck. Your bones are hollow — a result of the later stages of the French disease. Impiety has made a feast of you and eaten your marrow.”

Mistress Overdone walked up to the three men.

Annoyed at being bested in insults by Lucio, the first gentleman said to her, “Which of your hips has the worst sciatica?”

Sciatica was a painful disease that was thought to be the result of the French disease.

Mistress Overdone ignored the question and said, “Well, well; there’s one over yonder arrested and being carried to prison who was worth five thousand of you all.”

“Who’s that, please?” the second gentleman asked.

“Sir, he is Claudio, Signior Claudio.”

“Claudio is going to prison? I don’t believe it,” the first gentleman said.

“You may not believe it, but it is true,” Mistress Overdone said. “I saw him arrested, I saw him carried away, and what is more, within these three days his head will be chopped off.”

“Despite all my fooling,” Lucio said, “I do not want that to happen to Claudio. Are you sure about this?”

“I am very sure about it,” Mistress Overdone said, “and the reason for Claudio to be treated like this is that he made Juliet pregnant.”

Lucio said, “Believe me, this may very well be true. Claudio promised to meet me two hours ago, and he has always been very careful to keep his promises.”

“Besides, you know, this is consistent with a conversation that we had earlier on this subject,” the second gentleman said.

“But, most of all, this agrees with Angelo’s new proclamation,” the first gentleman said.

“Let’s go and learn the truth about this,” Lucio said.

He and the two gentlemen departed.

Mistress Overdone complained to herself, “What with the war, what with the sweating cure for people infected with syphilis, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am losing my customers.”

Pompey walked up to Mistress Overdone, who asked him, “What’s the news?”

Pompey said, “That man yonder is being carried to prison.”

Wanting to find out what Pompey knew, Mistress Overdone asked him, “Well, what has he done?”

“A woman.”

“But what’s his offence?”

“Groping for trouts in a peculiar river,” Pompey said.

“Groping for trouts” was a kind of fishing in which people felt for, aka tickled, trout in a hiding place in a river. “Peculiar” meant “private,” aka a place where no fishing was allowed. Pompey meant that the man — Claudio — had been tickling where no tickling was allowed. In other words, he had committed fornication.

“What, is there a maid with child by him?” Mistress Overdone asked.

“Maid” meant “maiden,” aka virgin, so Mistress Overdone should have asked about a former maid.

Pompey replied, “No, but there’s a woman with maid by him.”

Pompey was using language precisely. The pregnant woman’s unborn baby would be a virgin. In their society, a young male virgin was sometimes called a maid. Of course, the word “maid” also referred to female virgins.

Pompey asked, “You have not heard of the proclamation, have you?”

“What proclamation, man?”

“All whorehouses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down.”

“And what shall become of the whorehouses in the city?”

“They shall stand for seed,” Pompey replied. “They would have gone down, too, but a wise burgher made an offer for them.”

Pompey enjoyed making puns. A male appendage that can stand up can be used to plant a seed in a woman’s uterus. After planting the seed, the male appendage goes down.

Burghers were middle-class men with overflowing pockets. Sometimes, burghers invested in whorehouses.

Mistress Overdone asked, “But shall all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down?”

“To the ground, Mistress,” Pompey said.

“Why, here’s a change indeed in the commonwealth!”

The commonwealth is the state of the nation, but an additional meaning is people united by a common interest. A whore and her client are united.

Mistress Overdone wondered, “What shall become of me?”

Pompey replied, “Come; don’t be afraid. Good counselors lack no clients. Although you change your place of business, you need not change your trade; I’ll be your tapster still. And by tapster, I mean your pimp; I will pimp your whores for you. Courage! There will be pity taken on you — you who have worn your eyes almost out in the service, you will have allowances made for you.”

Mistress Overdone saw the Provost, whose job is to apprehend, keep in custody, and punish criminals, coming toward them.

Alarmed, she said, “What’s going on here, Thomas Tapster? We had better leave.”

Pompey looked and said, “Here comes Signior Claudio, led by the Provost to prison. The pregnant Madam Juliet is with them.”

Not wanting to meet the Provost, Mistress Overdone and Pompey left.

Claudio, who was bound and obviously a prisoner, complained to the Provost, “Fellow, why are you showing me thus to the world? Take me to prison, where I am committed.”

The Provost said, “I am not showing you off to the world out of meanness. Lord Angelo has ordered me to do this. It is a part of your punishment.”

“Thus can the demigod Authority make us pay for our offence in full in accordance with the words of Heaven in the Bible,” Claudio said. “On whom punishment falls, it falls; on whom punishment does not fall, it does not fall. Either way, justice is triumphant.”

Claudio may have been thinking about Proverbs 21:15: “It is joy to the just to do judgment; but destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity.” But Zachariah 7:9 also mentions mercy and compassion: “Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion, every man to his brother […].”

Lucio and the two gentlemen walked over to Claudio, the Provost, and Juliet.

“How are you, Claudio!” Lucio asked. “What is the reason for these restraints? Why are you bound?”

“The reason for these restraints is too much liberty, my Lucio,” Claudio said. “Too much liberty is a surfeit, an excess. Surfeiting — eating too much — is the father of much fasting. We eat too much, and then we do not eat at all. Similarly, every immoderate use of liberty leads to restraint. Our natures pursue, like rats that gulp down ratsbane, the poison specially intended to kill them — an evil that causes them to thirst. When we drink, we die.”

Claudio was correct. Many laws of Vienna had not been enforced for a long time, and so people such as Claudio had taken advantage of that. Now Vienna was entering a time in which those laws were strictly enforced.

“If I could speak so wisely while I was under arrest, I would send for certain of my creditors so that they could have me arrested,” Lucio said, “and yet, joking aside, I would rather have the foolishness of freedom than the wisdom of imprisonment. What offence have you committed, Claudio?”

“I have committed an offense that, if I were to mention it, would cause offense again.”

“What, is it murder?” Lucio asked.

“No.”

“Lechery?”

“You can call it that,” Claudio said.

The Provost said to Lucio, “Leave us, sir!”

He then said to Claudio, “You must go now.”

Claudio said to the Provost, “Let me speak one word, good friend.”

He then said, “Lucio, a word with you.”

“A hundred, if they’ll do you any good,” Lucio said. “Is lechery such a concern? Is lechery something that officers of the law really concern themselves with?”

“In my case, they have,” Claudio said. “I had a true contract to legally marry Juliet. Because of that true contract, I got possession of Juliet’s bed. You know the lady; she is definitely my wife, except that we have not had the wedding ceremony. We put off the wedding ceremony because we were hoping to get a bigger dowry out of the coffer of her family. We thought it best to hide our love for each other until we had time to get them to approve of our love for each other. But it so happens that our most mutual entertainment in bed that we had thought to keep hidden is now written large in the belly of Juliet — that is writing that anyone can read.”

“She is with child, perhaps?” Lucio said. “She is pregnant?”

“Unhappily, she is,” Claudio said. “And the Duke has a new deputy to rule in his absence. This deputy rules harshly, perhaps because he is young and unused to rule or perhaps because he is treating the body public like a horse he is riding for the first time — to show the horse that he is its master, he digs his spurs in its side. I don’t know whether his tyranny is due to the position that he fills or it is due to his own character. Either way, he is strictly enforcing laws that have been ignored for nineteen years. These neglected laws were like unpolished armor that was hung on the wall and never worn. But now, the new deputy is strictly enforcing these half-asleep and neglected laws. He is surely doing this to earn a reputation.”

“I am sure that you are right,” Lucio said. “The penalty for fornication is death by beheading. Your head stands so insecurely on your shoulders that a milkmaid, if she is in love, may sigh with lovesickness and blow it off. Send after Duke Vincentio and appeal to him for mercy.”

“I have tried to do that, but Duke Vincentio is nowhere to be found,” Claudio said. “Please, Lucio, do me this kind service. Today my sister is supposed to enter a cloister and become a novice. Tell her the danger that I am in. Implore her, for me, to become friends with the strict deputy. Tell her to talk to him in person and try to persuade him to be lenient toward me. I have great hope in that because in her youth she has an eager and speechless dialect, a certain body language, that moves men. Besides, she uses reason and conversation well; she is very persuasive.”

“I hope that she is,” Lucio said, “not just for you, but for other people who have done what you have done and who would be arrested and punished just like you. You should be enjoying your life. I would hate for you to lose your life because of a game of tick-tack.”

Tick-tack was a board game in which pegs were inserted into holes. The symbolism is obvious.

“I will go and see and talk to your sister,” Lucio said.

“I thank you, good friend Lucio,” Claudio said.

“I will see her within two hours.”

Claudio said to the Provost, “Come, officer, let’s leave!”

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