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

— 2.1 —

Angelo, Escalus, a Justice, the Provost, and some officers and attendants were meeting in a courtroom.

Angelo said, “We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to make the birds of prey afraid but letting it remain motionless so that the birds of prey grow accustomed to it and make it their perch and not their terror.”

Escalus replied, “Yes, but always let us be keen and sharp, and cut a little and prune where needed rather than let the axe fall and chop down and kill the tree. This gentleman whose life I would save — Claudio — had a most noble father!

“Your honor, whom I believe is very strict in preserving his virtue, you should realize that you yourself have sexual urges, and if the right time and right place had come along, or if the right place had come along when your sexual desire was at its height, or if you had the opportunity to act on your sexual desires and achieve the satisfaction you desired, then perhaps sometime in your life you yourself would have erred in the same way as this man whom you have sentenced to death. You yourself might have been punished in the same way by the same law.”

“It is one thing to be tempted, Escalus, and another thing to fall,” Angelo said. “I do not deny that the jury, passing sentence on the prisoner’s life, may among the sworn twelve jurors have a thief or two who are guiltier than the prisoner on trial.

“When a crime is revealed to justice, that is the crime that justice seizes. The people who are put on trial are the people who are arrested. Who knows how many thieves have served on juries that have tried other thieves?

“It is very obvious that when we see a jewel on the ground we stoop and pick it up. We do that because we see it, but we tread upon the jewel we do not see and never think about it.

“You may not extenuate Claudio’s offence because I myself have had similar sexual urges. Instead, you should tell me that if I, who have condemned Claudio, should also commit the same offense, then the judgment of death that I gave to Claudio should also be given to me with no mercy shown or extenuating circumstances being urged.

“Sir, Claudio must die.”

“Be it as your wisdom will have it,” Escalus replied.

“Where is the Provost?” Angelo asked.

“Here I am, if it pleases your honor,” the Provost replied.

“See that Claudio is executed by nine tomorrow morning. Bring to him his confessor; let him confess his sins and be prepared to die because tomorrow morning will be the end of his Earthly pilgrimage.”

The Provost departed.

Escalus thought, May Heaven forgive Claudio — and forgive us all! Some rise because they sin, and some fall because they are virtuous. Some people walk many times on the ice of a frozen pond and crack it without falling through; other people fall through the first time they stand on ice. Similarly, some people commit many crimes without ever being caught; other people are caught the first time they commit a crime.

Elbow, who was a Constable, and some other law officials arrived. With them were two men named Froth and Pompey, whom they had arrested. Elbow was not good with language; he committed many malapropisms in his speech.

“Come, bring them away,” Elbow said. “If these two men are good people in a commonwealth who do nothing but use their abuses — do wicked things — in common whorehouses, I know no law. Bring them away.”

“Greetings, sir!” Angelo said. “What’s your name and what’s the matter?”

“If it please your honor, I am the poor Duke’s Constable, and my name is Elbow.”

Elbow should have said that he was the Duke’s poor Constable.

Elbow added, “I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honor two notorious benefactors.”

“Benefactors?” Angelo said. “Well, what benefactors are they? Aren’t they malefactors?”

Angelo used words better than Elbow. Angelo knew the difference between a benefactor and a malefactor.

“If it pleases your honor, I don’t know well what they are, but I do know that they are puritanical villains, that I am sure of, and I am sure that they are void of all profanation in the world that good Christians ought to have.”

Most villains are not puritanical, and most good Christians are likely to think that they prefer profession — witnessing to the world about the glory of God — to profanation. However, some villains can very well be puritanical — they are hypocritical villains.

Escalus said sarcastically, “This is well said; here is a wise officer.”

“Continue,” Angelo said. “What is the occupation or social class of these two men?”

Elbow was slow to speak.

Angelo asked, “Elbow is your name? Why don’t you speak, Elbow?”

Pompey joked, “He cannot, sir; he’s out at ‘Elbow.’”

Being out at elbow can mean wearing ragged clothing — clothing with holes in the elbows. Pompey also was joking that Elbow’s brain went out when he heard his name — Elbow was at a loss for words when he heard his name. Chances are, Elbow simply had been distracted by something and did not hear Angelo.

“Who are you, sir?” Angelo asked Pompey. “What is your occupation or social class?”

Elbow answered for Pompey, “He, sir! He is a tapster, aka bartender, sir. He is a part-time pimp. He is a man who serves a bad woman. The bad woman’s whorehouse, sir, was, as they say, plucked down in the suburbs; and now she professes to run a hot-house, which she calls a bath-house, but I think that the hot-house is a very ill house, too.”

“Why do you think that?” Escalus asked.

“My wife, sir, whom I detest before Heaven and your honor —”

“Detest?” Escalus asked. “You detest your wife?”

Elbow should have said that he professes his wife — he declares that his wife is his wife.

“Yes, sir,” Elbow replied. “My wife is a woman whom, I thank Heaven, is an honest and faithful woman —”

“Why then do you detest her?” Escalus asked.

Escalus knew that Elbow was making malapropisms, but Escalus was not above encouraging Elbow to make a fool of himself.

“I say, sir,” Elbow replied, “I will detest myself also, as well as she, that this house, if it is not a bawd’s house, it is pity of her life because it is a wicked house.”

Elbow had stated that if the house under discussion is not a whorehouse, then it would be a pity for his wife.

“How do you know that the house is a whorehouse, Constable?” Escalus asked.

“Sir, I know it from my wife,” Elbow replied. “If my wife had been a woman cardinally given, she might have been accused of fornication, adultery, and all moral uncleanliness there.”

Instead of “cardinally,” Elbow should have said, “carnally.”

Elbow was complaining that Pompey had tried to recruit Mrs. Elbow as a prostitute, or perhaps he was complaining that Froth had mistaken her for a prostitute, or both.

“This would have happened because of the woman’s agent — a pimp working for her?” Escalus asked.

“Yes, sir, by Mistress Overdone’s agent, but as my wife spit in his face, she defied him.”

Pompey said, “Sir, if it please your honor, this is not the truth.”

“Prove it before these varlets here, you honorable man,” Elbow said. “Prove it.”

Escalus said to Angelo, “Do you hear how he misuses words? He is calling us varlets, and he is calling this alleged pimp an honorable man.”

Pompey said, “Sir, his pregnant wife went into our house because she was longing, saving your honor’s reverence, for stewed prunes. Sir, we had only two stewed prunes in the house, which at that very distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit dish, a dish that cost some three pence. Your honors have seen such dishes; they are not China dishes, but they are very good dishes —”

Despite being under arrest, Pompey was having fun. He was deliberately putting much irrelevant detail into his speech, and he was parodying Elbow’s malapropisms by saying “distant time” instead of “exact time” or “at that instant.”

“Stop wasting our time,” Escalus said. “The dish does not matter, sir.”

“No, indeed, sir. It does not matter a pin. You are therein in the right, but let me get to the point,” Pompey said. “As I say, this Mistress Elbow, being, as I say, pregnant with child, and being great-bellied, and longing, as I said, for prunes; and us having but two in the dish, as I said, Master Froth here, this very man, having eaten the rest, as I said, and, as I say, paying for them very honestly; for, as you know, Master Froth, I could not give you three pence again.”

“No, indeed,” Froth replied.

“Very well,” Pompey said to Froth. “You being then, if you remember, cracking the stones of the foresaid prunes —”

“Yes, so I did indeed,” Froth said.

“Why, very well,” Pompey said. “I told you then, if you remember, that such a one and such a one were past cure of the thing you know of, unless they kept very good diet, as I told you —”

Someone listening to Pompey could think that he was talking about prostitutes who suffered from venereal disease and who ate stewed prunes as a treatment for the disease. In fact, that is what he was talking about. Basically, he was babbling in the hope of confusing the judges so that they would decide not to punish him and Froth.

“All this is true,” Froth said.

Pompey said, “Why, very well, then —”

“Come, you are a tedious fool,” Escalus said. “Speak words that are to the purpose. What was done to Elbow’s wife that he has cause to complain of? Come and tell me what was done to her.”

“Sir, your honor cannot come to that yet,” Pompey said. “‘Cum’ and ‘done to her’ — get it?”

“I am using those words with different meanings from the ones you suggest,” Escalus said.

“Sir, but you shall come to it, by your honor’s leave. And, I ask you, look at Master Froth here, sir. He is a man whose income is four-score pounds a year, and his father died at Hallowmas: November 1, aka All Saints’ Day. It was at Hallowmas, wasn’t it, Master Froth?”

“No, it was on All-Hallond Eve, aka All-Hallows Eve: October 31, aka Halloween or the Eve of All-Saints’ Day.”

“Why, very well,” Pompey said. “I hope here we speak truths. He, sir, sitting, as I say, in a lower chair, sir; it was in the Bunch of Grapes room at the tavern, where indeed you delight to sit, do you not?”

“I do indeed,” Froth said, “because it is a public room and good for winter because a fire is kept burning in it.”

“Why, very well, then,” Pompey said. “I hope here we speak truths.”

“This will outlast a night in Russia, when nights are longest there,” Angelo said to Escalus. “I’ll leave now, and I will leave the hearing of the case to you, hoping that it will be the case that you’ll find good reason to whip them all.”

Whipping was a common legal punishment.

“I think that I will find reason to whip both men,” Escalus said. “Good day to your lordship.”

Angelo exited.

Escalus said to Pompey, “Now, sir, come on. Tell me what was done to Elbow’s wife once more.”

“Once, sir? There was nothing done to her once.”

Elbow requested, “Please, sir, ask him what this man — Froth — did to my wife.”

“Please, your honor,” Pompey requested, “ask me.”

“Well, sir; what did this gentleman do to her?”

“Please, sir, look at this gentleman’s face,” Pompey said.

He added, “Good Master Froth, look upon his honor; it is for a good purpose.”

Pompey asked Escalus, “Does your honor see his face?”

“Yes, sir, very well.”

“Please, look at his face very carefully,” Pompey said.

“I am.”

“Does your honor see any harm in his face?”

“Why, no.”

“I’ll be supposed upon a book, his face is the worst thing about him,” Pompey said.

Pompey continued to parody Elbow’s malapropisms. The proper expression was to be deposed, aka sworn, upon a book — the Bible. If Pompey could entertain Escalus and make Escalus like him, he might be able to escape being punished.

Pompey continued, “Good, then; if his face is the worst thing about him, how could Master Froth do the Constable’s wife any harm? I would like your honor to tell me that.”

“He’s in the right,” Escalus, who was entertained by Pompey, said. “Constable, what do you say about this?”

“First, if you don’t mind,” Elbow said, “the house is a respected house; next, this is a respected fellow; and his mistress is a respected woman.”

Pompey knew that Elbow meant “suspected,” not “respected,” and he decided to have fun at Elbow’s expense.

Pompey said to Escalus, “I swear by my hand, sir, his wife is a more respected person than any of us all.”

“Varlet, you lie,” Elbow said, rejecting the allegation that his wife was respected. “You lie, wicked varlet! The time has yet to come that my wife was ever respected by man, woman, or child.”

“Sir, she was respected by him before he married her,” Pompey said.

Anyone who did not know what the word “respected” meant could think that Pompey was accusing Elbow of the same crime that Claudio had been convicted of.

“Which is the wiser here?” Escalus asked, smiling. “Justice or Iniquity?”

He then asked Elbow, “Is this true?”

Elbow said to Pompey, “Oh, you caitiff! Oh, you varlet! Oh, you wicked Hannibal! I respected with her before I was married to her!”

He said to Escalus, “If ever I was respected with my wife, or she with me, let not your worship think me the poor Duke’s officer.”

He said to Pompey, “Prove this, you wicked Hannibal, or I’ll make a charge of battery against you.”

Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who brought elephants and an army across the Alps so that he could attack Rome.

Escalus, who knew the correct definitions of the words “battery” and “slander,” said, “If he hits your ear, you could make a charge of slander against him, too.”

“I thank your good worship for that suggestion,” Elbow said. “What does your worship want me to do with this wicked caitiff?”

“Truly, officer,” Escalus replied, “this man has some offences in him that you would like to discover if you could; therefore, let him continue in his courses of actions until you know what offenses he has in him.”

Elbow replied, “I thank your worship.”

He then said to Pompey, “You see, you wicked varlet, now, what’s come upon you. You are to continue now, you varlet; you are to continue.”

Escalus asked Froth, “Where were you born, friend?”

“Here in Vienna, sir.”

“And do you have an income of fourscore pounds a year?”

“Yes, if it please you, sir.”

“I see.”

Escalus then asked Pompey, who now gave straight — or mostly straight — answers because he knew that he would not be punished, “What trade do you follow, sir?”

“I am a tapster, a poor widow’s tapster.”

“What is the name of the widow you work for?”

“Mistress Overdone.”

“Has she had any more than one husband?”

“She has had nine husbands, sir,” Pompey replied. “Overdone by the last.”

“Nine!” Escalus said.

Both Pompey and Escalus smiled. “Overdone by the last” meant that she had acquired the name “Overdone” by marrying her ninth husband. However, the phrase had another meaning: Because of the nine husbands, she had been “overdone” — she was sexually exhausted.

Escalus said, “Come over here close to me, Master Froth. Master Froth, I would not have you acquainted with tapsters: They will draw you, Master Froth, and you will hang them.”

The tapsters really would draw Master Froth; they would draw alcoholic beverages for him, and they would draw money away from him. As for hanging, if Master Froth continued to frequent shady bars and whorehouses, a time would come when he would be cheated and he would shout at a person such as Pompey, “Go hang yourself!”

Escalus said to Froth, “Get you gone, and let me hear no more of you.”

Froth, who was happy to be let go with a warning, replied, “I thank your worship. For my own part, I never come into any room in a tap-house, but I am drawn in.”

One meaning of “drawn in” is “cheated.” When a tapster draws, aka pours, beer, quite frequently there is froth at the top. One way of cheating customers is to serve more froth than beer.

“Well, stay out of trouble, Master Froth,” Escalus replied, “Farewell.”

Froth exited.

Escalus then said to Pompey, “Come here close to me, Master Tapster. What’s your name, Master Tapster?”


“What is the rest of your name?”

“Bum, sir.”

“Indeed, your bum is the greatest thing about you; therefore, in the beastliest sense you are Pompey the Great. Pompey, you are a part-time pimp, Pompey, although you disguise that occupation by also being a tapster, don’t you? Come, tell me the truth; it shall go better for you.”

“Truly, sir, I am a poor fellow who has to make a living.”

“How would you make a living, Pompey? By being a pimp — a bawd? What do you think of the trade, Pompey? Is it a lawful trade?”

“It would be if the law allowed it, sir.”

“But the law will not allow it, Pompey,” Escalus said. “It will not be allowed in Vienna.”

“Does your worship mean to geld and spay all the youth of the city? Will all the youth of the city have their testicles and ovaries removed?”

“No, Pompey.”

“Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will go to it then. They will have sex,” Pompey said.

He added, “If your worship will have the police arrest all the prostitutes and all their clients, you need not fear the pimps — they will automatically be out of their jobs.”

“Some pretty serious enforcement of the laws is beginning, I can tell you. Soon there will be nothing but beheadings and hangings.”

“If you behead and hang all who offend that way — who buy or sell illicit sex — for only ten years altogether, you’ll be glad to give out a commission for the acquisition of more heads. If this law is enforced in Vienna for ten years, I’ll rent the best house in it at a ridiculously low price — the price that I would pay today for a room the size of a closet. Rent will be very cheap because of lack of tenants. If you live to see this come to pass, say that Pompey told you so.”

“Thank you, good Pompey,” Escalus replied, “and, in answer to your prophecy, listen carefully to me. I advise you to not let me find you before me again in court upon any complaint whatsoever. Certainly do not let me find you before me again in court for an offense related to the place you live in today. If I see you again in this court, Pompey, I shall beat you to your tent, and I will prove to be a severe Caesar to you. Julius Caesar defeated Pompey the Great, who retreated to his tent, and I shall defeat you in court the way that Julius Caesar defeated Pompey the Great in battle. To speak plainly, Pompey, I shall have you whipped. Take this warning to heart, Pompey, and, for this time, Pompey, fare you well.”

“I thank your worship for your good advice,” Pompey said.

But he thought, I shall do what flesh and fortune shall determine — they are my better advisors. Whip me? No, no; let a cartman whip his nag, or a law enforcement officer whip a whore. The valiant heart is not whipped out of his trade. I shall continue to be a part-time pimp.

Pompey exited.

“Come over here close to me, Master Elbow,” Escalus said. “Come here, Master Constable. How long have you held the job of Constable?”

“Seven years and a half, sir.”

“I thought, by your readiness in the office, you had worked in it some time. You say, seven years altogether?”

“And a half, sir.”

“It has been a great challenge to you,” Escalus said. “They do you wrong to make you Constable so often. Aren’t there men in your ward who are competent to serve as Constable?”

“Truly, sir,” Elbow replied, “only a few have the intelligence to be Constable. Whenever they are chosen, they are glad to allow me to take the position. They give me some money, and I serve as Constable instead of them.”

“Bring the names of some six or seven men who are the most competent in your parish.”

“Should I bring the list of names to your worship’s house, sir?”

“Yes, to my house,” Escalus replied. “Fare you well.”

Elbow exited.

Escalus asked the Justice, “What time do you think it is?”

“Eleven a.m., sir.”

“Please come home and have lunch with me.”

“I humbly thank you.”

“I am grieved that Claudio must die, but there’s no remedy for it.”

“Lord Angelo is severe.”

“His severity is necessary,” Escalus said. “Mercy is not always mercy. Pardon is always the nurse of second woe. Being too lax in enforcing the law results in much lawlessness. But yet — poor Claudio! There is no remedy for it. Come, let us go, sir.”

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