Brown, Carolyn E. “Erotic Religious Flagellation and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure”, English Literary Renaissance, Vol.16, Iss. 1, Dec 1986
Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure (first performed in 1604) links religious asceticism and flagellation with deviant sexuality and political tyranny. The Duke of Vienna, the judge Angelo and the novice nun Isabella claim to be pious and chaste, while their sexuality is repressed in such a way that it emerges as indifferent voyeurism, aggressive sadism or masochism, respectively. “…by drawing parallels to historical or topical events, Shakespeare suggests that the protagonists’ very asceticism, ironically, causes this deviant desire and that they associate their austere religious practices with pleasurable feelings.”
The plot revolves around a couple, Claudio and Juliet, who have not properly observed all the rules of engagement and marriage. While the Duke travels through Vienna in disguise as a friar, he hands power over to the judge Angelo, who decides to make an example of Claudio and condemn him to death for fornication. Claudio’s friend Lucia asks Isabella, the novice nun and Claudio’s sister, for help. Angelo offers to free Claudio in exchange for sex with Isabella.
The trio of the Duke, Angelo and Isabella are all ascetics (though none are actually clergy), and are hostile to sexual desires, believing that “pain kills the libido and thus subjecting themselves and others to physical abuse.”
Shakespeare used puns and allusions to characterize Angelo by comparing him to stockfishes, which were cured by drying and beating with clubs, and mentioning his attempt to “rebate and blunt his natural edge”, with “rebate” suggesting “to beat out”. Both Angelo and Isabella speak of sexuality in terms of plunder and violence, of men victimizing women.
Shakespeare alludes to the nuns’ sexual restraints and the restricted interaction with men, but Isabella finds that insufficient for her: “And have you nuns no farther privileges”, she asks. This repression cannot destroy the libido, but only makes it express in perverse ways. “Actual intercourse being forbidden, they develop a sexuality based primarily on fantasy, a cerebral kind of satisfaction, in which they savor the writhing of victims who fearfully wait for the blow from their persecutor.” The Duke, disguised as a friar, links death itself with “sweetness”, not a passage to a Christian afterlife, and Isabella calls suffering and death “meritorious”. Lucio claims Angelo “puts transgression to’t”, not only punishing harshly but deriving perverse pleasure from punishment, and “put to” can also mean engage in sexual intercourse.
The Duke uses more images of violence, horse-riding and the discipline of children as a metaphor for his rule:
We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
Throughout the play, characters claim they are acting from the highest motives when they are actually indulging their perverse sexuality. Even Lucio plays on Isabella’s masochism to persuade her to plead with Angelo, using the language of seduction, rather than her love of her sibling. Eager to cast herself into the role of supplicating victim before a cruel man, Isabella agrees. When Angelo offers to free Claudio in exchange for Isabella’s sexual submission, expressed in the terms of horse-riding with references to “…now I give my sensual race the rein:/Fit they consent to my sharp appetite…”, Isabella’s response reveal her masochistic desires, even as she refuses him:
Th’ impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.
Shakespeare’s play is a scathing indictment of the upper-class ideals of religious asceticism, demonstrating that expressions of piety mask personal indulgences, and repressed sexuality only fosters sadism and masochism, which leads to injustice. Such a criticism would have been scandalous at an earlier time, but by the early 17th century was unavoidable.
Centuries before thinkers like Michel Foucault and Susan Sontag pondered the connection between fascism and sadomasochism, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure linked the sexual repression of the Duke of Vienna and the judge Angelo to their stated need for strict law and order and to their unconscious sexual cruelty, expressed through allusion and metaphor. Angelo’s harsh rule is merely an excuse to indulge his sadism, while Isabella seeks out restriction and pain from his authority, indulging her masochism. It is the sexually uninhibited lower-class characters like Pompey and Mistress Overdone who are capable of compassion.