Razing the Sanctuary: Measure for Measure and corrupting the tropes of "virtuous" literary romance
In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s play, the poetry plays with tropes that usually elevate Renaissance romantic poetry from a secular (and sexual) experience to a spiritually and intellectually exalted one, particularly within the text given to Isabella and Angelo, both of whom are presented in the play as paragons of virtue. That being said, the actual so-called presumptive “romance”between them is deeply corrupt and verging on criminal: their interactions resolve not in mutual romance or elevation but instead culminate in sexual blackmail and legal transgression. The poetry, however, describes a kind of love that is nonetheless “virtuous”by Renaissance terms—that is, Isabella and Angelo react to each other intellectually and even spiritually as well as sensually. That their relationship becomes the crux of Angelo’s moral degradation and Isabella’s spiritual viciousness is a result of the play’s setting: Shakespeare’s “Vienna”acts as a kind of moral sinkhole in which the usual poetic exaltations of romantic spirituality fundamentally cannot work. Specifically, this “Vienna”legislates against sexuality in such a way that all forms of sexuality are considered morally and legally degrading, and Isabella and Angelo act as embodiments of how toxic this state-sanctioned morality is: they experience a genuine connection that fulfills all the poetic conventions used to establish “virtuous”rather than corrupt love, and it corrupts them. This relationship therefore illustrates both the intrinsic sensuality that underpins those “virtuous”tropes as well as the failings of the state
In short, Isabella and Angelo, acting as embodiments of a corrupted state morality, meet, fall in poetically genuine love, but experience the ensuing emotions as degrading rather than elevating. I argue this through exploring three different poetic conventions: how they were used to elevate the idea of romance in Renaissance poetic traditions, how Shakespeare’s text about Isabella and Angelo utilizes them, and why exactly they fail in each case.
I. “To hear her speak again / and feast upon her eyes”: Angelo and neo-Platonic romance
Angelo’s soliloquies establish his belief that what he feels for Isabella is sinful, yet they also chronicle an emotional reaction to Isabella that is both not in and of itself sinful and actually fulfills tropes of Renaissance romantic poetry that prove a lover is virtuous rather than corrupt: specifically, he discusses her eyes and her speech, and is intellectually before physically attracted. Through this reversal of poetic morality—this pulling an intellectual reaction down into the physical, rather than up to the spiritual—I establish both that his reaction is more love than lust, and that his misread of that is not only personal but predicated on the state code of law that he has been tasked to uphold, which legislates against sexuality in such a way that he has been conditioned to believe his poetically virtuous feelings are amoral.
II. “And strip myself to death as to a bed”: Isabella and religious sensuality
Isabella’s rhetoric comes directly from the poetic tradition of sensual, affective religious poetry, often written by women, that allowed women freedom of sensual expression otherwise denied them. Yet her sensuality is not transfigured into spiritual elevation or expressive freedom when she speaks; her speech construes her as deeply afraid of her own sensual responses and in fact she becomes more volatile and fearful of sex the more she talks about it. Through this reversal of poetic sanction—this internalized belief that her sensuality is eroding her religiously grounded morality rather than her religious response encompassing her sensuality—I establish both that she does respond to Angelo emotionally and sensually, and that her misread of that is again not only personal but predicated on the same conventions of the state.
III. “I can speak against the thing I say”: eloquent lovers made incoherent
As established in Chapter I, focusing on the “tongue”(i.e. speech) is one of the most concrete ways in Renaissance poetic dialectic to establish love as virtuous; as established in both prior chapters, Isabella and Angelo are both eloquent beyond what is considered normal in the text. When they meet, therefore, their verbal skills rise in the collision—and then immediately decay the minute they each individually decide that what they are feeling is amoral. Here, I discuss how their verbal decay is a specific and essentially deliberate reaction to that internal (and inaccurate) moral judgment: the virtue of their speech is moot when state-sanctioned ideology functionally chokes them both.
Those tropes failing matters not simply to the play, for exploring the characters’internal lives and the toxicity of its setting, but their failures turn their function on its head: instead of elevating presumed “base”romantic responses to prove something spiritual or intellectual in the lovers, here the lovers re-sensualize spiritual tropes and reinforce the latent sensuality they have signified all along.