Death in Measure for Measure

Write a critical commentary on the following passage, relating it to the presentation of death, here and elsewhere in the play.

2020 JC2 Preliminary Examination

In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the threat of capital punishment is often wielded by authority figures as a means to enforce order from an otherwise uncontrollable chaotic Viennese society. However, the imminence of death as a legal consequence of excessive vice not only underscores the frailness of human morality but also acts as a catalyst from which previously unfathomable deeds are now seen as pardonable. In Act 3 Scene 1, Claudio’s instinctual fear of death, driven by the irrationality of fear, leads him to persuade Isabella to compromise her virtue to save him from his state-sanctioned death sentence. Thus, the passage presents death to be ‘a fearful thing’ that evokes such deep feelings of apprehension that it drives the degradation of one’s morality when an individual is faced with their impending mortality.

Death is presented to spark irrational fear that overrides one’s rational sensibilities. This is evident through Claudio’s characterisation of ‘death is a fearful thing’. Despite death being understood as an inanimate ‘thing’, Claudio still imbues the concept of ‘Death’ with the crippling fear in those faced with it. Yet, Isabella’s rebuttal of ‘And shamed life a hateful’ creates a stark contrast between their attitudes towards ‘life’ and ‘Death’ as the two diametrical opposites are capable of provoking the extreme emotions of ‘fearful’ and ‘hateful’. The similarity in the suffix ‘the’ creates a symmetry that underscores the emotional quality attached to both life and death, yet also emphasises how Isabella views Claudio’s apprehension towards death as directly opposite to her belief that Claudio living a shamed life would be worse than death. Yet, Claudio’s impassioned monologue extolling his imagined afterlife of ‘to lie in cold obstruction’ contrasted with ‘this sensible warm motion’ presents a striking disparity as the opposing dimensions of ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ as well as the stillness of ‘lie’ juxtaposed with ‘motion’ suggests the irrationality of Claudio’s beliefs about death, which are based solely on conjectures of basal human sensory experiences. Furthermore, the alliteration of ‘fiery floods’ underscores the potency that Claudio ascribes to the experience of being engulfed by death as one that completely overwhelms his senses. Thus, Claudio’s use of extended imagery to describe the horrific afterlife he fears awaits him in death demonstrates the capacity of death to evoke irrational fear that leads to mortality, impinges on his own morality to secure his survival.

Death is thus presented as the impetus that precipitates human fallibility as characters faced with their imminent demise are forced to admit the untenability of their moral standards, especially as the encroachment of one’s moral virtuosity is presented as the only means to free one from their imminent death. Claudio’s denunciation of death, with the intensifier ‘too horrible’ paradoxically strengthens his determination to live. Claudio’s resolution to live is underscored by the superlatives ‘weariest’ and ‘most loathed’ which he attributes to life is seen as ‘paradise’ in contrast to his deepest fears of the purgatory awaiting him in death. This culminates in Claudio’s impassioned plea, ‘sweet sister, let me live’. The alliteration ‘sweet sister’ further emphasises the paragon of virtue that Isabella represents, and for Claudio to make this plea of his sister through the perversion of ‘sin’ into a ‘virtue’ suggests how Claudio has thoughtlessly encroached upon both his own moral standards and the moral virtues of his sister for his own selfish desire. Claudio’s moral degradation is made apparent through Isabella’s exclamatory ‘O, you beast!’ as the animalistic diction of ‘beast ‘ reduces the humanity that she had previously associated with Claudio. Furthermore, Isabella’s slew of rhetorical questions such as ‘wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?’ emphasises how morally reprehensible Claudio’s request of Isabella is. Yet, Claudio’s pleas in this passage are directly contrasted with ‘Thou shalt not do it’ earlier as the resolute tone and the modal verb ‘shalt not’ emphasises Claudio’s previously strict adherence to his moral code before the thought of his own mortality made him turn upon his own morality out of sheer desperation.

Finally, death is also presented as a righteous punishment fitting for transgressors exhibiting excessive vice. This is evident from Isabella’s refusal to acquiesce to Claudio’s demands as ‘Take my defiance/ Die, perish!’ demonstrates a merciless attitude towards those who have run afoul of the law through the absolutes ‘Die’ and ‘perish’. Furthermore, Isabella’s proclamation of ‘Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade’ with the conjunction ‘but’ and the transactional diction ‘trade’ suggesting the regularity of the occurrence of vice as opposed to it being a mere slip-up indicates the necessity of such a harsh punishment of death, rather than her previous belief of it being unwarranted. Isabella’s change in perspective leads her to claim that ‘mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd’, in which the personification of mercy to an unrepentant offender who would continue fornicating. Furthermore, Isabella’s resolute, declarative statement ‘Tis best thou diest quickly’ with the superlative ‘best’ emphasises how death seems to be a justifiable consequence for deeds of immorality.

Thus, death is presented as the consequences of immorality as well as the driving force for further immorality as one seeks to escape one’s mortality at the expense of their morality.

Chloe Kho (19-O1)