William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 2

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— 3.2 —

Several people entered the room in which the disguised Duke Vincentio was standing: Elbow the Constable, Pompey the part-time pimp, and some law-enforcement officers.

Elbow said to Pompey, “Unless we can stop you pimps from buying and selling men and women like beasts, we shall see female bellies all over the world filled with brown and white bastard — and I don’t mean just the wine we call ‘bastard.’”

The disguised Duke Vincentio thought, Heavens! What is going on here?

Pompey replied, “The world has two usuries: prostitution and usury. Prostitution creates bastards; usury creates interest. It has not been a merry world since the practitioners of the merrier usury — prostitution — were outlawed and prosecuted, and practitioners of the worse usury — lending money at high interest — were encouraged by order of law to grow rich and wear expensive clothing such as a furred gown to keep each usurer warm. The furs were fox on top of lamb, to signify craftiness overcoming innocence, and to signify that craft, being richer than innocence, is more important and highly regarded in this world.”

“Come this way, sir,” Elbow said to Pompey.

Then he said to Duke Vincentio, who was still disguised as a friar, “Bless you, good father friar.”

“And bless you, good brother father.”

“Father” was a term used in their society to refer to an older man as well as to a priest; Elbow was an older man.

The disguised Duke Vincentio continued: “What offence has this man committed, sir? What has he done to offend you?”

“Sir, he has offended the law,” Elbow replied, “and, sir, we think that he is a thief, too, sir, because we have found upon him, sir, a strange picklock, which we have sent to the deputy.”

The picklock was a skeleton key that was used to unlock many doors.

Hearing this, the disguised Duke Vincentio was able to guess Pompey’s occupation.

“Heavens!” he said to Pompey. “You are a bawd, a wicked bawd! You are a pimp! The evil that you have caused to be done, that is the means by which you live. Do you ever think what it means to cram your mouth with food or clothe your back from such a filthy vice? Do you ever say to yourself, ‘From their abominable and beastly sexual touches I drink, I eat, I clothe myself, and I live?’ Can you believe that you are living a good life when its maintenance depends on such a stinking business? Mend your life! Sin no more!”

Pompey replied, “Indeed, it does stink in some ways, sir, but yet, sir, I would argue —”

“No, if the Devil has given you arguments in favor of sin, you will show that you are the Devil’s property,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said.

He then said to Elbow, “Take him to prison, officer: Punishment and instruction must both do their work before this rude beast will learn to mend his ways.”

“He must appear before Angelo, the Duke’s deputy, sir,” Elbow replied. “Angelo has given Pompey warning: The deputy cannot abide a whoremaster. If anyone is a whoremonger and appears before Angelo, it would be better if he were to do anything else but appear before Angelo.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio was able to recognize that Pompey had at least one good characteristic: He was not a hypocrite.

The disguised Duke Vincentio thought, I wish that we were all as free from sin as Angelo falsely seems to be, and as free from hypocrisy as Pompey actually is.

Elbow said about Pompey, “His neck will come to your waist — a cord, sir.”

Elbow was referring to the cord, aka rope, that Duke Vincentio wore around his waist because he was disguised as a friar. Pompey’s neck would be in a noose if he were punished for his crime by being hung.

Seeing Lucio coming toward them, Pompey said, “I spy comfort; I see money for my bail. Here’s a gentleman and a friend of mine.”

Lucio said, “How are you, noble Pompey! What, at the wheels of Caesar? Are you being led in triumph?”

In Roman triumphs, defeated enemies would walk behind the vehicle that carried their conqueror. In history, Pompey was never led in triumph. However, his sons were led in triumph after Julius Caesar defeated them in 45 B.C.E. in the Battle of Munda.

Lucio continued: “What, is there none of Pygmalion’s images, a newly made woman, to be had now by putting one’s hand in one’s pocket and extracting it clutched?”

Pygmalion was an ancient sculptor who fell in love with one of his statues: that of a lovely young woman. He prayed to Aphrodite, goddess of sexual desire, who brought the statue to life. Pygmalion married the newly created woman and together they had a son.

In their society, statues were often painted, and prostitutes in his society used paint — makeup; therefore, when Lucio referred to Pygmalion’s images, he was referring to prostitutes. Men would reach into their pockets, clutch money, and pull the money out in order to pay for the prostitute.

Lucio asked Pompey, “Do you have anything to say in reply? Huh? What do you have to say to this tune, matter, and method? Has a flood washed away sin? What do you have to say, mate? How do you like Angelo’s reforms? Is your way of life completely destroyed? Are you unhappy? Are you unable to speak? How is it going for you?”

The disguised Duke Vincentio thought, He babbles and babbles, and then he babbles worse than before!

“How is my dear morsel, your mistress? Does Mistress Overdone still work as a procurer?”

“Indeed, sir,” Pompey said, “she has eaten up all her beef, and she is herself in the tub.”

Beef was slang for flesh-food that had been prepared for consumption — or, more simply, prostitutes. A treatment for venereal disease was to sweat in a tub. Tubs were also used to salt, aka powder, beef.

“Why, this is good,” Lucio replied. “This is the right of it; it must be so. A fresh whore must become a powdered bawd — it is inevitable. Are you going to prison, Pompey?”

“Yes, indeed, sir.”

“Why, it is not amiss, Pompey,” Lucio said. “It is hardly a surprise. Farewell. Go, and say that I sent you there. Are you going to prison for debt, Pompey? Or for what reason?”

Lucio had a cruel streak in him. He knew why Pompey was going to prison. In fact, he may have informed on Pompey and on Mistress Overdone.

“I am going to prison for being a bawd,” Pompey replied.

Lucio said to Elbow, “Well, then, imprison him. If imprisonment is the due of a bawd, why, it is his right to be in prison. He is without doubt a bawd, and from antiquity, too. He was bawd-born — given birth by a bawd, and born to be a bawd.”

Lucio added, “Farewell, good Pompey. Commend me to the prison, Pompey. You will act like a good husband now, Pompey; you will stay at home in your house.”

“I hope, sir, your good worship will pay my bail,” Pompey said.

“No, indeed, I will not pay your bail, Pompey; it is not the fashion these days to pay the bail of bawds. Instead, I will pray, Pompey, to increase your bondage, your time in prison. That is the fashion nowadays. If you do not take your time patiently, why, your mettle, aka spirit, is all the more — as will be the metal of your fetters. Adieu, trusty Pompey.”

Lucio then said to the disguised Duke Vincentio, “Bless you, friar.”

“And you,” the disguised Duke Vincentio replied.

“Does Bridget still paint, Pompey? Does she still wear makeup?” Lucio asked.

Elbow said to Pompey, “Come this way, sir.”

“You will not pay my bail, then, sir?” Pompey asked Lucio.

“No, Pompey, not then and not now,” Lucio replied.

He then asked, “What is the news, friar? What is the news?”

Elbow repeated, “Come this way, sir. Come.”

“Go to your kennel, Pompey,” Lucio said. “Go.”

Elbow, Pompey, and the officers departed, leaving Lucio and the disguised Duke Vincentio alone.

“What news, friar, have you heard about the Duke?”

“I have heard none. Can you tell me of any?”

“Some say that he is with the Emperor of Russia; others say that he is in Rome. But where do you think he is?”

“I don’t know where he is, but wherever he is, I wish him well.”

“It was a mad and eccentric trick of him to steal secretly away from Vienna and usurp the beggary he was never born to. He left his high position here, and wherever he is, he has a lower position than ruler. Lord Angelo dukes it well in his absence; he severely punishes criminals.”

“He does well when it comes to punishment.”

“A little more leniency when it comes to lechery would do no harm in him; he is somewhat too crabbed that way, friar.”

“It is too prevalent a vice, and severity must cure it.”

“Yes, truly the vice is prevalent. It has many partakers and many friends, and it is impossible to stop until eating and drinking have been stopped. When there are no more people, there will be no more lechery.

“They say that this Angelo was not made by man and woman in the usual way of producing children. Is it true, do you think?” Lucio asked.

“How else could he have been made, then?”

“Some say that a sea-maid, aka mermaid, spawned him; some say that he was begotten by two dried codfishes. But it is certain that when he makes water, aka pees, his urine is hard pellets of ice — that I know to be true. He also has the reproductive capacity of a puppet — there can be no doubt about that.”

“You are full of jokes, sir, and speak rapidly,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said, and then he thought, You speak so rapidly that you speak without thinking.

“Why, Angelo is ruthless — he is willing to take away the life of a man because of the criminal rebellion of what the man has in between his legs! Would the Duke who is absent have done this? Before he would have hanged a man for begetting a hundred bastards, the Duke would have paid for the nursing of a thousand bastards. The Duke had some feeling for the act of sex: He knew the service and utility of it, and that taught him to be merciful.”

“I never heard that the absent Duke had much of a reputation for sleeping with women; he was not inclined to engage in unethical sex.”

“Oh, sir, you are deceived,” Lucio said. “You are wrong.”

“It is not possible.”

“You don’t believe that the Duke was inclined to engage in unethical sex? Yes, he was. When he saw a beggar who was fifty years old, he used to put a ducat in her dish, if you know what I mean and I think you do. The Duke had strange fancies in him. He used to be drunk, too — I can tell you that.”

“You do him wrong, surely,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said.

“Sir, I was an intimate friend of his. A sly fellow was the Duke, and I believe I know the cause of his leaving Vienna.”

“What, I ask, might be the cause?”

“No, you must pardon me for not telling you,” Lucio said. “It is a secret that must be locked within my teeth and lips, but I can tell you this: The majority of his subjects believe that the Duke is wise.”

“Wise! Why, there is no question but that the Duke is in fact wise!”

“He is a very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow,” Lucio said.

“Either this is envy in you, or folly, or a mistake,” the disguised Duke Vincentio said. “The very stream of his life and his management of Vienna must — if a reference were needed — give him a better proclamation. His biography and the record of his rule in Vienna show him to be much better than what you have said about him. Let his achievements testify for him, and he shall appear even to the envious to be a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier. Therefore you speak ignorantly and without knowledge, or if you have some knowledge of the Duke, you have much darkened your evaluation of the Duke because of malice toward him.”

“Sir, I know him, and I love him,” Lucio said, falsely. He did not know Duke Vincentio.

“Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love. Someone who loved the Duke would know him better than you do, and someone who knew the Duke would love him more than you do.”

“Come, sir, I know what I know.”

“I can hardly believe that, since you don’t know what you are saying. But, if the Duke ever did return, as our prayers are that he will, let me desire you to make your charges in his presence. If you have spoken the truth, you will have the courage to maintain that it is the truth. I am bound by duty to summon you to testify before the Duke that what you have said about him is true, and so I ask you for your name.”

“Sir, my name is Lucio; my name is well known to the Duke.”

“He shall know you better, sir, if I may live to report to him what you have said about him.”

“I am not afraid of you.”

“Oh, you hope that the Duke will not return to Vienna, or you imagine that I am someone who cannot hurt you. But indeed I can do you little harm: You will swear before the Duke that you did not say these things.”

“I’ll be hanged first,” Lucio said. “You are deceived about me, friar. But no more about this. Can you tell me whether Claudio is to die or not?”

“Why should Claudio die, sir?”

“Why? For filling a bottle with a funnel, if you know what I mean and I think you do. I wish that the Duke we have been talking about would return to Vienna again. This deputy without genitals will depopulate the province with continence and abstinence from sex. He will not allow sparrows to build nests in his house eaves because sparrows are lecherous. The Duke always would have dark deeds darkly answered; he would never bring them to light. Since no one was ever charged with crimes of lechery, the crimes were never punished. I wish that the Duke would return! This Claudio is condemned to death because he took off his pants. Farewell, good friar. Please, pray for me. The Duke, I say to you again, would eat mutton on Fridays.”

Fridays were days of abstinence from meat for Catholics, and Lucio was saying that Duke Vincentio would eat meat on days of abstinence. And since “mutton” was a slang word for prostitutes, Lucio was saying that Duke Vincentio would engage in illicit sex.

Lucio added, “He’s now past fornication because of old age, yet even now I say to you that he would kiss a beggar even if she smelt of brown bread and garlic. Say that I said so. Farewell.”

Lucio exited, and the disguised Duke Vincentio said to himself, “No powerful or great people can escape censure; back-biting calumny will strike at the whitest virtue. What King is so strong that he can tie up the gall in a slanderous tongue? But who is coming here?”

Escalus, the Provost, and some law-enforcement officers entered the room. With them was Mistress Overdone, who had been arrested.

Escalus said, “Go and take her away to her prison cell!”

“My good lord, be good to me,” Mistress Overdone pleaded. “Your honor has the reputation of being a merciful man, my good lord.”

“You have been warned two and three times, and yet you are again guilty of the same crime!” Escalus said. “This would make even the embodiment of Mercy swear and play the tyrant by giving you a harsh sentence.”

The Provost said, “She has been a bawd for eleven years’ continuance, may it please your honor.”

Of course, such information would not please Escalus, but “may it please your honor” was an idiom meaning “if your honor doesn’t mind my telling you.”

Mistress Overdone said, “My lord, this information against me comes from Lucio. He made Mistress Kate Keepdown pregnant when the Duke was still in Vienna. Lucio promised to marry her. His child is a year and a quarter old, come the feast day of Saint Philip and Saint Jacob: May 1. I myself have taken care of his child, and see how he goes around and abuses me!”

“Lucio is a fellow who frequently disregards the law,” Escalus said. “Let him be brought before us. Take her to her prison cell!”

Mistress Overdone wanted to plead with Escalus, but he told her, “Don’t. No more words.”

The law-enforcement officers took Mistress Overdone away.

Escalus said, “Provost, my colleague Angelo will not change his mind: Claudio must die. Let him be provided with religious advisors and all charitable preparation that Christians can provide. If Angelo administered justice with the amount of pity that I feel for Claudio, Claudio would not be going to die.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so,” the Provost said, “this friar has been with Claudio, and he has given him spiritual counsel to help him accept his death.”

“Good day, good father,” Escalus said.

“May blessings and goodness fall upon you!” the disguised Duke Vincentio said.

“Where are you from?”

“I am not from this country, although now I am able to reside here for a while. I am a brother of a gracious order, recently come from the Holy See on special business from his holiness.”

“What news is abroad in the world?” Escalus asked.

The answer given by the disguised Duke Vincentio was bitter and cynical: “None, except that so great a fever is afflicting goodness that only the death of goodness can cure the fever.

“The only things in demand in the modern world are the newest things — newness for its own sake. Obviously, we should make use of the old things that work, and we should replace them with new things only when the new things work better.

“To be aged in any undertaking is considered to be as dangerous as it is considered virtuous to be faithful in any undertaking. Obviously, it ought to be considered a virtue to be faithful only to good undertakings. Obviously, one should become aged only as a result of working on good undertakings. These days, to be virtuous is to be in danger.

“Scarcely enough trustworthiness is in existence to make societies secure and make it safe to associate with other people, but there is foolish optimism enough to make many ‘friendships’ cursed because pretend friends will take advantage of the foolish optimists. Obviously, things work out best if everyone is true to their word and no one takes advantage of another person.

“The wisdom of the world considers and thinks about these riddling problems.

“This news is old enough, we have heard it before, and yet it is news that we hear again every day.”

The disguised Duke Vincentio hesitated and then asked, “Please, sir, tell me what kind of disposition did the absent Duke have?”

Escalus replied, “He was one who, above all other battles, fought especially to know himself. He did his best to follow this ancient piece of wisdom: Know thyself.”

“What kind of pleasure did he enjoy?”

“He preferred to rejoice at seeing another person being merry rather than himself be merry; he was a gentleman of all temperance,” Escalus said. “But let’s not talk about him, but simply pray that his business may prove to be prosperous; instead, tell me about Claudio. Is he prepared to die? I understand that you have visited him.”

“Claudio does not believe that he has received an unjust sentence from his judge. He most willingly humbles and accepts his sentence; however, his human weakness had led him to imagine possible scenarios in which he would not lose his life. I have spent time with him and let him know that none of these futile hopes has any basis in reality, and now he knows that he will die.”

“You have done your duty to Heaven and to the prisoner,” Escalus said. “I have labored to get a lesser sentence for the poor gentleman to the furthest limit of my humble ability, but Angelo is so severe in giving sentences that he has forced me to tell him that he is indeed acting like the embodiment of Justice. By that, I mean he is the embodiment of Justice without Mercy.”

“If his own life is as virtuous as he wants and expects other people to be, it is well for him, but if he fails to live up to the standards that he imposes on other people, he has sentenced himself — he shall receive the same punishment that he gives to other people,” Duke Vincentio, still disguised as a friar, said. “So it is written in Matthew 7:2: ‘For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’”

“I am going to visit the prisoner,” Escalus said. “Fare you well.”

“May peace be with you!”

Alone, the disguised Duke Vincentio said to himself, “He who the sword of Heaven — judicial power — will bear should be as holy as severe; he must be holy if he gives severe sentences. He must know that he is to set a good example for others to follow. He must have the grace to stand firmly on his principles, and he must have the strength to act upon them. He must not judge other people more harshly or less harshly than he judges himself. May the judge be shamed who gives the death sentence to people who commit crimes and sins that the judge himself commits and enjoys! May Angelo be twice treble shamed because he weeds my vice — which was to allow for a long time some sexual crimes to go unpunished — and lets his own vices grow!

“Oh, what vices may a man hide within him although he appears to be an angel on the outward side! The man has committed the same crimes as other people but deceived everyone by hiding his crimes. He uses worthless spiders’ strings to drag the most ponderous and substantial things to a place of shame! His hypocrisy shames his supposed virtue.

“I must apply craft against vice. With Angelo tonight shall sleep Mariana, whom he once betrothed but now despises, and so the disguised Mariana will pay Angelo what he demands from Isabella. She will pay him with falsehood — the illusion that she is Isabella. By so paying him, Mariana will fulfill the old pre-marriage contract that she and Angelo had made — with the result that Angelo must marry her.”

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