William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 1

— 3.1 —

In a room of the prison, Duke Vincentio, who was still disguised as a friar, talked to Claudio.

Duke Vincentio asked, “So then you are hoping that Lord Angelo will pardon you?”

“The miserable have no other medicine than hope,” Claudio replied. “I have hope that I will live, but I am prepared to die.”

“Be absolutely sure that you will die,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “Either death or life — if in fact you are pardoned — shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:

“If I lose you, life, I lose a thing that no one but fools would keep.

“Life, you are only a breath, and you are servile to all the skyey astrological influences that hourly afflict this habitation, this body, that you have.

“You, life, are death’s fool; you seek to run away from death, but always you are running toward death.

“You, life, are not noble; all the clothing and trappings of civilized existence that you have are nursed by baseness. Human life begins with a baby that dirties its diapers and is completely dependent upon other people, all food is something that was recently alive, magnificent marble architecture begins with blocks of marble cut in a quarry, and the jewels in ornaments were dug from a pit in the ground.

“You, life, are by no means valiant because you fear the soft and tender forked tongue of a poor snake — you are afraid that a venomous bite will kill you. The best of rest is sleep, and sleep is something that living people desire and yet living people are grossly afraid of death, which is no more than a sleep.

“Life, you are not yourself because you exist on many thousands of grains that issue out of dust. Dust a living person used to be, and to dust shall the living person return.

“Life, you are not happy because what you don’t have, you always strive to get, and what you do have, you forget and do not value it.

“Life, you are not constant because your mental state alters in strange ways, changing like the Moon.

“Life, if you are rich, you are poor because, like an ass whose back is bowed by heavy gold ingots, you carry your heavy riches during your journey, and your death unloads your riches.

“Life, you have no friends because your own children, who call you their sire, curse the gout, skin disease, and catarrh for not ending your life sooner.

“Life, you have neither youth nor age; instead, it is as if you dream about both while taking a nap after a large lunch. For all of your blessed youth, you are dependent like an old beggar is, and you beg for alms from your old parents who suffer shaking limbs from palsy. And when you are old and rich, you lack the energy, passion, strength, and beauty that would make being rich pleasant.

“Can you call any of this living? More than a thousand additional deaths lie hidden in what we call life, yet we fear death, which makes us all equal.”

“I humbly thank you for your words,” Claudio said. “To sue to live, I find I seek to die, and, through seeking death, I find life. Therefore, let death come to me.”

Isabella came to the door and called, “Hello! May peace be found here, along with grace and good company!”

The Provost said, “Who’s there? Come in. Such good wishes deserve a welcome.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio said to Claudio, “Dear sir, before long I’ll visit you again.”

“Most holy sir, I thank you.”

Isabella entered the prison cell and said to the Provost, “My business is a word or two with Claudio.”

“You are very welcome to talk to him,” the Provost said.

He added, “Look, Signior Claudio, here’s your sister.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio asked, “Provost, may I have a word with you?”

“You may have as many words with me as you please.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio whispered, “I wish to overhear their conversation. Take me to a concealed place where I can overhear them.”

Duke Vincentio was disguised as a friar, and the Provost was willing to conceal the friar — and would have been willing to conceal Duke Vincentio if he had known the friar’s true identity.

The disguised Duke Vincentio and the Provost left.

“Now, sister, what’s the comfort you bring me?” Claudio asked.

“Why, as all comforts are, it is very good, very good indeed. Lord Angelo, having business in Heaven, intends to swiftly make you his permanent ambassador in Heaven. Therefore make your best preparations speedily; tomorrow you go to Heaven.”

“Is there no remedy?”

“None, except for a remedy that, to save a head, would cut a heart in two and cause extreme anguish.”

“But is there any remedy?”

“Yes, brother, it is possible for you to live. There is a Devilish mercy in the judge, that if you’ll implore it, it will free your life, but fetter you until death.”

“Perpetual durance?”

Claudio meant life in prison, but Isabella interpreted his phrase as meaning perpetual guilt.

“Yes, just exactly that: perpetual durance, a restraint. Even if you were free to travel throughout the world, you would still be restrained.”

Isabella meant that Claudio would not be able to escape from his guilt no matter where he traveled.

“What kind of restraint?” Claudio asked.

“Such a one as, if you consented to it, would tear your honor away from you just like bark being stripped from a tree. You would be left naked, without honor.”

“Let me know the point. Speak clearly.”

“I am afraid of what you may decide, Claudio; and I quake in fear that you would value a feverous life and more greatly respect six or seven additional winters than an everlasting honor. Do you dare to die?

“The feeling we have in death is mostly fearful anticipation rather than pain. The poor beetle, which we tread upon, in bodily suffering endures a pang of pain as great as when a giant dies.”

Isabella meant that the suffering during death of a giant was no worse than the suffering of a beetle that is stepped on; however, her words could be interpreted as saying that the suffering during death of a beetle was as great as the suffering of a dying giant. Her words could also be interpreted as saying that all creatures, great and small, fear death, suffer during death, and want to keep on living.

“Why are you trying to make me feel shame?” Claudio asked. “Do you think that your flowery words of tenderness can make me resolve to die? Do I need your flowery words to reconcile myself to death? If I must die, I will encounter darkness as I would a bride, and hug it in my arms.”

“There spoke my brother; when you said those words a voice metaphorically came out of my father’s grave,” Isabella said. “Yes, you must die: You are too noble to save your life with dishonorable expedients.

“Angelo is a deputy who outwardly appears to be a saint. His grave visage is immovable and his deliberate words nip youth in the head the way that a falcon bites its prey to kill it. He also drives follies into hiding the way that a falcon does a fowl. Nevertheless, Angelo is a Devil. If his sin were to be vomited out of him the way that mud and silt are removed from a pond, his sin would appear to fill a pond as deep as hell.”

“The gilted Angelo!” Claudio cried.

“Oh, hypocrisy is the cunning uniform of Hell, which invests and covers the damnedest body in gilted trimmings! Hell can give a damned soul the appearance of a Puritan!

“Claudio, what do you think about this? If I were to give Angelo my virginity, he would set you free.”

“Oh, Heavens! That cannot be true,” Claudio said.

“Yes, it is true,” Isabella replied. “He would give to you — in return for this rank offence, this sexual harassment and intended rape of me — the freedom to continue to offend him. He would allow you to continue to sin with Juliet.

“This night is the time when I should do what I abhor to name, or else you die.”

“Don’t do it,” Claudio said.

“If he wanted my life, I would throw it down for your deliverance from death as readily as I would throw away a pin.”

“Thanks, dear Isabella.”

“Be ready, Claudio, for your death tomorrow. Be prepared to die.”

“Yes,” Claudio said.

He immediately began to have second thoughts.

He asked, “Has Angelo sexual desires in him that thus can make him bite the law on the nose and treat it with contempt, when he should instead enforce the law? Surely, it is no sin, or of the seven deadly sins, it is the least sinful sin.”

“Which is the least?”

“If lechery were damnable, and with Angelo being so wise, why would he for a short bout of sex and folly be everlastingly punished in Hell? Oh, Isabella!”

“What are you saying!”

“Death is a thing to be feared.”

“And a shamed life is to be hated.”

“Yes, but to die, and go we know not where; to lie trapped in a cold corpse and to rot; to have this alert and warm body become a clod of clay, to have this spirit, which is capable of feeling delight, bathe in fiery floods or reside in a piercingly cold region of thickly layered ice; to be imprisoned in the invisible winds and blown with restless violence round about a world that is suspended in space; or to be worse than the worst of those souls whom unrestrained and uncertain thought imagine to be howling in Hell: It is too horrible!

“The weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, aches and pains of every bodily kind, penury, and imprisonment can lay on us in the Land of the Living is a paradise to what we fear we will endure when we are dead.”

“I can’t believe what I am hearing!”

“Sweet sister, let me live,” Claudio pleaded. “What sin you do to save a brother’s life, our sibling love for each other will make so much allowance for the deed that it will become a virtue.”

“Oh, you beast without a moral sense! Oh, you faithless coward! Oh, you dishonest wretch! Will you be made a man out of — be given life because of — my vice?

“Isn’t it a kind of incest, to take life from your own sister’s shame? From my illicit sex you would be ‘reborn and come to life’ again! What should I think about you?

“Heaven forbid my mother played my father fair and was faithful to him! My father never fathered such a warped and wild weed as you! You must be a bastard! I defy you! You are no brother of mine! Die! Perish! If I could stop your death simply by bending down, I would not! I would let you die! I’ll pray a thousand prayers that you die; I will not pray a single word to save you.”

“Please, listen to me, Isabella.”

“Your sin is not a one-time occurrence; it is your career, your habitual way of life. Showing mercy to you would simply allow you to commit more fornication. It is best that you die quickly.”

“Please, listen to me, Isabella.”

Duke Vincentio, still disguised as a friar, had heard every word. Now he came out of hiding and said to Isabella, “Allow me to say a word, young sister — only one word.”

“What do you want?”

“If you will give me some of your leisure time, I want to speak with you soon. What I would ask from you is something that will benefit you.”

“I have no superfluous leisure time,” Isabella replied. “The time that I spend with you is time that must be stolen from the other things that I need to do, but I will talk to you for a while.”

She walked a short distance away, and so she was unable to hear Duke Vincentio talk to Claudio, her brother.

The disguised Duke Vincentio said, “Son, I have overheard the conversation that has passed between you and your sister. Angelo never intended to corrupt her; he only made a test of her virtue to see if his judgment of people’s characters was correct. She, having the integrity of honor in her, made him that virtuous denial that he was very glad to receive. I am confessor to Angelo, and I know this to be true; therefore, prepare to die. Do not comfort yourself with false hopes. Tomorrow you must die; get on your knees, pray, and get ready to die.”

“Let me ask my sister to pardon me,” Claudio said. “I am so out of love with life that I would beg to be rid of it.”

“Keep that thought. Farewell.”

Claudio went to his sister, talked briefly with her, and left the room.

As Claudio and Isabella were talking, the disguised Duke Vincentio said, “Provost, may I have a word with you?”

The Provost came forward and asked, “What do you want, father?”

“That now you have come here, you will leave. Leave me alone for a while with the maiden Isabella. My mind and my friar’s robe both proclaim that I intend no harm to her. She shall not be harmed while she is alone with me.”

“Very well,” the Provost said, and then he left the room.

Isabella came over to the disguised Duke Vincentio, who said to her, “The hand that has made you beautiful has made you good. Beauty often discards goodness — beauty and chastity seldom meet. But because grace is the soul of your character, you will always be beautiful and virtuous.

“Fortune and luck have made known to me the assault on your virtue that Angelo has made; and, except that I know of other examples of Angelo’s sinfulness, I should wonder at Angelo. What will you do to content this deputy for Duke Vincentio — Angelo — and to save your brother?”

“I am going to Angelo now to tell him what I have decided,” Isabella replied. “I prefer that my brother die by the law than that my son should be a bastard — unlawfully born. But how greatly is good Duke Vincentio deceived in Angelo! If ever he returns and I can speak to him, I will open my lips in vain, or I will reveal Angelo’s sinful conduct.”

“That should be a good thing to do,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said, “yet, as the matter now stands, he will avoid your accusation; he will say that he was only making trial of you and testing your virtue. Therefore listen to what I advise. I want to help, and I have an idea that can make all things right.

“I believe that you may very righteously do a poor wronged lady a benefit that she deserves, redeem your brother from the angry law and prevent his death, do no stain of sin to your own gracious person, and much please the absent Duke Vincentio if he ever returns and hears about this business.”

“Let me hear you speak more about your plan,” Isabella said. “I have the courage to do anything that appears to be not foul and sinful to me.”

“Virtue is bold, and goodness is never fearful,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “Have you heard of Mariana, the sister of Frederick, the great soldier who drowned at sea?”

“I have heard of the lady, and good words went with her name. She has a good reputation.”

“Angelo should have married her; he was engaged by oath to marry her. With such an oath, many couples have sex. When sex occurs, a wedding is mandatory. If sex does not occur, then in some situations, such as the unfaithfulness of one partner, the engagement can be lawfully and ethically broken. The wedding day of Angelo and Mariana was set, but between the time of the engagement and the wedding Frederick, Mariana’s brother, was wrecked at sea. The ship was carrying Mariana’s dowry.

“Listen to the bad things that befell the poor gentlewoman. She lost a noble and renowned brother, who in his love toward her was ever most kind and brotherly. Along with him, she lost the greatest part of her fortune: her marriage-dowry. She also lost her husband-to-be: this Angelo who has the reputation of being so virtuous.”

“Can this be true?” Isabella asked. “Did Angelo leave her?”

“He left her in her tears, and he did not dry one of them with his comfort. He swallowed his vows to her whole and did not keep them; instead, he pretended that she had been unfaithful to him.

“In short, Angelo bestowed on her what was already hers: her own lamentation. Even now, she weeps for him, and her tears affect him the way they would marble — not at all.”

“Death would deserve much praise if it were to take this poor virgin Mariana from the world! What corruption is in this life, that it will let this man Angelo continue to live! But how can she receive any benefit from this situation?”

“You may easily heal the rupture between Angelo and Mariana. By doing so, you will save your brother, and you will do so without losing any honor.”

“Tell me how I can do this, good father.”

“The virgin Mariana still loves Angelo; his unjust unkindness that in all reason should have quenched her love for him has, like an obstacle or impediment in a current of water, made it more violent and unruly.

“Go to Angelo; answer his sexual harassment of you with a plausible obedience,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “Agree with his demands and say that you will sleep with him, but with conditions. First, your stay with him must not be long. Second, the time must be dark and silent, with no one bustling about. Third, the place must be convenient for you.

“This being granted — now comes the most important part — we shall advise this wronged maiden to go to the appointment instead of you. She will go in your place; if the sexual encounter becomes public afterward, it may compel Angelo to marry her. If this plan works, your brother will be saved, your honor remain untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged by being married, and the corrupt deputy weighed in the scales of justice.

“I will go to the maiden Mariana and inform her of our plan and prepare her for the sexual encounter with Angelo.

“If you agree to participate in carrying out his plan, the benefits will justify the deceit. The benefits will be a shield against reproof.

“What do you think?”

Isabella replied, “The plan itself makes me happy, and I trust the plan will result in a very prosperous and perfect outcome.”

“It depends very much on your being able to do your part of the plan,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “Go speedily to Angelo. If he wants you to go to his bed tonight, say that you agree. I will go immediately to Saint Luke’s. There, at a farmhouse surrounded by a ditch resides this dejected Mariana. At that place come and see me and tell me what happened when you met with Angelo. Meet with Angelo quickly, so that you can visit me soon.”

“I thank you for this comfort,” Isabella said. “Fare you well, good father.”

She departed.

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