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  • Gods and Children:Shakespeare Reads The Prince

Naive youth frequently allows itself to be manipulated by cunning old age. The idea of an antagonism between youth and old age is explored in this essay, which focuses on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and, in particular, on how Angelo and Duke Vincentio struggle with each other. Not merely a description of the "conflict between generations," this kind of clash also has a strictly political significance. We observe how the youth—a symbol of spontaneity, idealism, and novelty—falls prey to the ambitions of a power-seeking man in old age. As a result, youth grows old, while its enthusiasm is transformed into resentment.

It is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.

—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

Having taken the Romagna in 1502, Cesare Borgia, the Italian nobleman and model for Machiavelli's political treatise The Prince, soon learned how unruly the newly acquired province was. Armed robbery, theft, impudent nepotism, imprecise law, and the racket made by the rebellious common people—all of this demanded the introduction of some kind of order. Messer Ramiro d'Orco, a thirtysomething, dynamic, decisive, resolute, and morally incorruptible man, seemed to be the ideal candidate for the position of governor of the disobedient province. With the protection and consent of the prince, he introduced a strong rule of law that was ruthlessly executed, which resulted in Romagna turning into an arid desert ravaged by flames—a calm place, where nothing would take root. [End Page 109]

Let us turn to Niccolò Machiavelli, who recounts the later fate of Ramiro d'Orco in The Prince. Borgia, it turns out, in order

to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, . . . desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister. Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.1

The tragedy of the young Ramiro soon became the material for many literary adaptations. He is referred to in Cinthio's Epitia and in George Whetstone's two-part play Promos and Cassandra. Suffice it to say, before Shakespeare decided to write Measure for Measure the subject already had a long history of visions and revisions.


In Shakespeare's play, Duke Vincentio, the ruler of Vienna, leaves the city without any apparent reason. The otherwise praiseworthy intention to visit Poland does not sound too convincing in this context. Before he departs, he appoints a successor, whose task is to oversee the matters of state during his absence. The newly appointed substitute is Angelo, a young man famous for his righteousness. The duke remarks that if someone is virtuous, he or she should share that virtue with the world and not hold on to it selfishly. He brings forth the example of stars and torches, which do not give light for their own purpose but in order to light the way for others.

Still, the duke is aware that Angelo cannot be entirely relied upon. Some years before, he had promised to marry a certain lady, but when news of her having become impoverished reached him, he backed away from the idea.2 However, it is not Angelo who applies for the position of governor. He is exalted by the duke in an arbitrary fashion (just like Lear did with Goneril and Regan) and called to serve his country without any reason given. That is why he astutely tells the duke that perhaps he should try him out first and only then decide whether Angelo is fit to take over the position: "Now, good my lord, / Let there be some more test made of my metal, / Before so noble and so great a figure / Be stamp'd upon it" (1.1.47–50). Angelo refers here to the monarch's [End Page 110] ability to issue gold coins, and advises the ruler to verify the quality of the coinage before it enters circulation. He realizes that "the situation in which he suddenly finds himself is not a privilege, but a cunning stratagem designed to discover if his virtue is really as true as gold."3 However, this does not explain why the duke decides to pass his position on to him (virtue can be put to a test in a myriad of other ways) and not to the elderly Escalus, who has tremendous experience in terms of administering the state.

The events that follow prove that the decision made by Duke Vincentio is in fact based on bad faith and evil intentions. By putting the fate of the country in the hands of an immature dowry hunter, he wants to play with the youth, to tease Angelo's ambitions and ideals, all the while entertaining himself at the expense of the young man's naïveté. The duke does not actually leave the country: he disguises himself as a friar in order to secretly observe Angelo's actions. This camouflage fits him perfectly, because it grants him a different type of authority (without which he would not be able to live) and allows him to effectively conceal the real motives behind his behavior. From that point on, he will nose around, confess in the name of God, and give penance.

To recapitulate: if the duke had really wanted to abandon his post as governor, he would have chosen an expert as his successor. In this case, however, he overnight appoints a young man who is a "motion ungenerative" (3.2.108) to the highest position. Angelo's mindless attitude is saturated with a rather disturbing mania for employing simple and clear procedures regarding complicated human matters, which almost immediately subjects him to criticism and will ultimately be his demise. It quickly turns out that those who hold power are almost organically integrated with it and will never voluntarily give it away. Even if they do delegate some of their tasks to the young, they do so for fun, in order to stage the whole situation for their own pleasure, as if it were theater. Let us now consider this aspect in greater detail.

The first days of Angelo's rule bring about significant changes, since he fulfills the governor's duties with great diligence. He revitalizes the rigid rule of law and restores respect for it, turning it into a primary weapon in a moral revolution, one that is carried out in a city where brothels sit next to churches on every corner. Indeed, one of the first decrees of the new governor is to force the brothels out of the city center and into the suburbs. However, Angelo's reforms are unsuccessful, as this decision meets with an absolute lack of understanding. It has to be noted that in the Vienna of that period brothels served a function that [End Page 111] was not entirely unlike that of a meat shop, since the body was treated as a generally available commodity: "Food and greed are the two human drives. For the girls, sex is not love, but a form of work and source of money. For the customers it is not love, but food."4 Sexual activity was not considered in moral terms—sex was just another element of the Viennese citizen's daily diet. After all, Vienna was not Verona. In Vienna, matters of the heart were the domain of cardiologists and procuresses like Mistress Overdone.

Angelo never asks himself why his predecessor tolerated this state of affairs. Why did he not try to combat the moral corruption of the state? Was he really so self-preoccupied that he failed to see the obvious truth? Maybe he felt it was all right? Maybe he himself frequented those places that Angelo now tries to eradicate? Lucio, another "connoisseur," remarks that Duke Vincentio "had some feeling of the sport" (3.2.115–16). I would claim that the duke is representative of a generation that appears in every historical epoch—one that is carefree in its youth and becomes preachy with age. Such a generation is not interested in the strengthening of the law, because it came of age in an atmosphere of relaxed mores. However, every whelp has to grow up and finally develop a fondness for marriage, which is clearly evident in the case of the duke. This is also the reason why the actual ruler, though disguised as a friar, cynically supports the conservative revolution started by the young Angelo.

In a brilliant essay about Shakespeare's art, Allan Bloom observes that the duke

wishes to re-establish the institution of marriage, which is a mode of sexual expression, although one constrained by law. He is apparently to do so because he is now at the point where he is himself willing to marry. It should not be forgotten that his plot culminates in his own marriage, which would have been impossible if the reform had not taken place.5

The political and social consequences of the plan to reform family life boil down to an attempt to marry off as many couples as possible out of those who have so far only shacked up together. Down with the plague of promiscuity and venereal disease! Brothels can stay, but they shall operate in shame, outside the city center.

Angelo's attempt at imparting pride in and power to the law does not stem from his tragic position as a neophyte who wants to prove that he is the only person capable of straightening things out. The old [End Page 112] law seems to him to be a thing of the past. Not only is he incapable of comprehending it, he is also superstitiously afraid of it. This anxiety, however, arises from his lack of knowledge regarding the origins of the political. That is why Angelo, "a man of stricture and firm abstinence" (1.3.12), cannot be a good ruler. In the first two acts, he is only a scrupulous official with a strong preference for conservatism. Ideological schemata and standards bind his imagination, making him a slave to them. Thus he accuses Claudio, his peer, of indecent conduct and imprisons him. Employing old and unrealistic laws, he sentences him to death for impregnating a girl outside of marriage.

Angelo, like Ramiro d'Orco before him (and many others), easily falls into the trap set by the old duke, whose generation wields power. The duke, maliciously satisfied, observes that he "may in th'ambush of my name strike home, / And yet my nature never in the fight / To do in slander" (1.3.41–43). The old rulers want to be responsible for that which is good in politics, putting the blame for all evil—both past and future—primarily on the young, who become the target of mockery, beatings, and disrespect. Finally, once they are universally hated, the "good" duke returns and saves the world, which was turned wicked by the young. However, he will resort to many cheap and dirty tricks beforehand.


Claudio is imprisoned under the governor's decree. He has a beautiful and, more important, eloquent sister, Isabella, who is ready to come to his aid. In a conversation with Angelo, she tries to play on his pride, to convince him that a steadfast ruler ought to display mercy ("Yet show some pity," she says [2.2.100]). However, this is to no avail: Angelo shields himself with legalism—with strict conformity to the law—and refuses to abandon the decision he has already taken: "I show it most of all when I show justice; / For then I pity those I do not know, / Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall, / And do him right" (2.2.101–4).

Isabella does not understand much of what is going on around her. On the day her brother was summarily sentenced and sent to the scaffold, she began her novitiate. She is unaware of what it means to be liked by men, and therefore does not understand what Angelo wants from her in exchange for releasing her brother. Is she, however, the only ignorant person here? Usually, affection displayed by the governor is read as an "indecent proposal." Indeed, after a short demonstration [End Page 113] of inflexibility, Angelo resorts to blackmail: he will save Claudio in exchange for her chastity.

Still, I would not read Angelo's offer literally, for he is not that foolish. I would claim that at least at the beginning he has no intention of taking away the virginity of a nun-to-be. During the exchange with the governor, Isabella presented herself as a rather cunning person. In a direct conversation she carefully constructs a line of metaphysical argumentation by referring to mercy, godly justice, youthful power, and forgiveness, thus dismantling a certain type of rule that we might call legalism. The slow-witted Angelo senses that he has gone too far in relying on murky articles of the law. He cannot return easily to the normal world of "simple values." That is why he finds Isabella convincing: he is enchanted by her wisdom and falls under her spell.

Thus, Angelo will now try out a different model of rule that I would like to call the "Tamburlaine type." This is a wild, cruel, and brutal rule, part of which involves the ruler taking what he wants, when he wants it. Initially, Angelo does not desire carnal knowledge of Isabella—he only wants her sound advice. In demanding that she "lay down the treasures of [her] body" (2.4.96) he does not want to possess her physically but rather the very strength of her argument, which would in turn allow him to assess the value of tyranny. The duke, an apt observer of political life, later notes that "Angelo had never the purpose to /corrupt her; only he hath made an assay of her / virtue, to practice his judgment with the disposition / of natures" (3.1.160–63 [emphasis added]; see also 3.1.198–200).

To sum up: by offering Isabella sex in exchange for her brother's life, the governor wants to probe whether "sainthood" will break down under the pressure of power. Which model of rule is more effective—legalism or tyranny? Angelo does not desire the girl; he wants full power along with its recognition. Rape is thus "only" a final consequence, or a practical implementation of power and a test of its effectiveness. Angelo's "indecent proposal" does not deprive him of his innocence, nor does he cease to be young. He loses it all, alongside all illusions of a justly organized world, the moment Isabella agrees to go to bed with him.

When Aristotle discusses the types of human character in Rhetoric, he remarks that the young "look at the good side rather than the bad, not having yet witnessed many instances of wickedness. They trust others readily, because they have not yet often been cheated."6 Youth is thus synonymous with a lack of experience, a naïveté regarding the world and an unwise tendency to look at it from a very narrow perspective. On the [End Page 114] other hand, Aristotle continues, older people, or people "of a certain age," are "cynical; that is, they tend to put the worse construction on everything. Further, their experience makes them distrustful and therefore suspicious of evil. Consequently, they neither love warmly nor hate bitterly, but following the hint of Bias they love as though they will some day hate and hate as though they will some day love" (Rh. 2.12.1389b).

In the third act, there is a visitation. Of course, it is not an angelic one, nor a mystical illumination. Isabella visits her brother, bringing him both good and bad news: he can be freed and leave the prison that day, but only after paying an excessive, nonrefundable bail. All in all, it does not pay to submit it. "What is worse than death?" asks Claudio, and his sister answers that there are two worse things: dishonor in the world of people and eternal condemnation in "de civitate Dei," the city of God. The duke, dressed as a friar, eavesdrops on this bizarre conversation:

Claudio. The weariest and most loathed worldly lifeThat age, ache, penury and imprisonmentCan lay on nature, is a paradiseTo what we fear of death.

Isabella.                         Alas, alas!

Claudio. Sweet sister, let me live:What sin you do to save a brother's life,Nature dispenses with the deed so farThat it becomes a virtue.

Isabella.                         O you beast!O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?Is't not a kind of incest, to take lifeFrom thine own sister's shame?


The kind of severity displayed by Angelo earlier on is parallel to the inhuman chastity of Isabella, for whom trading her virginity is an act of both metaphorical and literal incest. Yet her half-devotional perseverance does not stop her from procuring his former fiancée, Mariana, for the governor in the very same scene. What we are dealing with here is a "bed-trick"—beloved by the Elizabethan public—which is performed with an aim of leading to an intimate situation, but not with the right person. Everyone looks the same in the dark, so is it possible to [End Page 115] distinguish one individual from another? All in all, the sexual act is to take place in silence and hurriedly. And so it happens, just outside the gate, in the garden, but it is not Isabella who is engaged in the sexual affair but rather Mariana.

One could say that this turn of events makes everyone happy. In order to cover his tracks—or more probably, just to indulge his whim—Angelo orders that Claudio be killed right away, at dawn. However, the old duke oversees this series of events. The day before, he manipulated Isabella and poor Mariana, using her blind love for Angelo and turning her, to a certain extent, against herself. The next day, he orders the prison superintendent to save the boy and send to the governor the head of a pirate who had died some time ago. Nor does he stop his activity as a friar. Knowing that Claudio will be spared, at least this time, he nevertheless blesses his soul and prepares him for death. However, the considerations of human finiteness and imperfection that the two indulge in (3.1.5–41, 76–77) more closely resemble a moral enema or a lecture on stoicism (i.e., the philosophy of old age) than a Christian service for the convict. The intimidated youth can hardly bear this, although the young are usually not afraid of hell; they fear instead the loss of the opportunity for a colorful and adventurous life.


Stuck between existence and absence, the duke resembles a hidden God, who receded from this world because he grew tired of people. However, he is not God but rather a badly disguised snooper who revels in the excrement of the human soul. Among those who play the game, no one really knows who he or she really is. It is only the duke—a Prospero-like puppeteer—who knows everything. He already knew a lot as a ruler, and what he did not know he later heard as a confessor. He is usually regarded as a philosopher who grew tired of wielding power. Escalus calls him a man who "above all other strifes, contended / especially to know himself" (3.2.226–27), or a man "of a certain age" who looks for young blood in order to satisfy his own fear of stagnation, boredom, and infirmity.

Still, this is only half of the truth, since Duke Vincentio is in fact a cynical old man of a slightly sadistic disposition. He seemingly elevates Angelo higher on the social ladder, allowing him to reach the top and taste power. However, the duke in fact plays with him, just like a cat plays with a mouse. Had he wanted to introduce order and effective [End Page 116] administration, he would have transferred power to the old Escalus. However, the duke indulges in the perverse joy of playing with the young, especially the governor, who is led by the nose from the very beginning and is not allowed anything he wants—neither Isabella nor her brother's head. Toward the end, Angelo is ridiculed, hated by the people, and forced to marry a woman to whom he feels indifferent.

One could argue that Angelo earned all of this for his lack of loyalty to the duke. However, what was the reason for quartering Ramiro d'Orco? Loyalty. It is not the guilt of the young that draws the punishment; on the contrary, it is blind punishment itself that seeks the guilty. This is the basic, universal, and timeless nature of old age: it realizes itself through chastening, preaching, and forbidding. This way, it wants to show to the world that it is on the side of clear, just, and legible rules. It is only on the basis of the assumption that the young are sinful and need strong punishment, followed by an act of mercy, that the old can fully develop their compassion. This is important news for the young: whatever success, fortune, or popularity they receive from the old is pleasant, but it never lasts long. In the long run, such successes become completely unpredictable, but paradoxically make it easier to accept the burden of old people's mercy.

Angelo is not the only one who receives a whipping: Isabella is punished too. The beautiful, eloquent girl does not ask any questions up to the moment she becomes convinced that she can save both her chastity and Claudio's head. She trusts the old man, and this is her undoing. The duke, who is an experienced diplomat, has a lot of time on his hands. He tames the girl's stubbornness by employing the technique of going step by step. First, he deceives her by saying that her brother could not be saved because the act of mercy was delivered too late. This "Stalin-like" trick is followed by another blow: her future husband wants to lock her in a dungeon for slandering the office of the governor. At first glance, it seems that in this way he teaches her about earthly justice, showing her that it will always triumph. That is one possible explanation. However, there is an alternative one: by exerting pressure on Isabella, he is attempting to "tame the shrew" and make her obey him by softening her fortitude. The old people's habit of settling important matters from a position of power, or by resorting to tricks, conquers any feeling he might have had for her (had he known how to handle it). In the end, he tries to fall in love with her, all the while secretly hating her. He does not desire Isabella because he is blinded by his sexuality—the old rarely allow themselves to be taken over by wild emotions. It is not the woman that he craves but her innocence and freshness. [End Page 117]

But the duke does not stop there. When the saintly Isabella was still a novice, she used to describe virtuous life in the language of eroticism: "That is, were I under the terms of death, / 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" (2.4.100–4). The erotic flirtation with death is expressed by means of a physical act of offering oneself to God, or being betrothed to Christ. Her ardent love, as is usual in the case of mystics, has a distinctly carnal dimension. The duke is aware of that because he secretly overheard her speaking on this matter. Thus, it is a mistake to regard him solely as a man who simply fell for a young girl. He is after a much greater prize: he wants to win her from God Himself. This is the scale of sexual excess and the erotic daring of old moralists! When you go to bed with someone, it had better be with a just cause in mind. Shakespeare acts here as a doctor or an investigator who opens up the foul belly of old age without revulsion, and even with some sympathy. All in all, without further ado he rips it open and lets the young be surprised.

It is difficult to comment on the badly violated Mariana, since she was put in a mess that is both inconceivable and unbearable. Angelo probably never loved her or even desired her carnally. A moment ago, he had sex with her, though in his mind she was a different person. This miracle is also procured by the old duke, who, in cooperation with the pathologically saintly youth, humiliates Mariana to an extent she has not known before. The duke comments thus: "We shall advise this wronged maid to stead up / your appointment, go in your place . . . and hear, by this is your brother / saved, your honour untainted, the poor Mariana / advantaged" (3.1.250–55). He toys with the world of the young in many ways: he kicks Mariana's love around; exalts Angelo and later incriminates him; deepens Claudio's uncertainty regarding his future; reprimands Lucio for his lighthearted talk; and makes Pompey, the pimp, first a prison guard and then a prisoner (and we know what kind of treatment stool pigeons get in such places). One could say that he is the ruler, so he can do everything. However, not only does he destroy the young people's lives but he does so at the expense of their ideals, putting the potential future reality into question. He fiercely tramples on the dreams and mythologies of the young, which he is forbidden to do if he is not the devil himself. Alan Bloom thus concludes:

The Duke is a refined torturer in such matters. Angelo has had the experience of Isabella and will probably spend the rest of his life comparing [End Page 118] Mariana with Isabella. And before his eyes he will see the woman he truly lusted after, enjoyed by the Duke. Perhaps the lesson is that these things are all the same in the dark, but Angelo will never believe that. This would be the philosophy of Mistress Overdone's house. The Duke is diabolical.7

Throughout the play, Lucio (a "fantastic," as Shakespeare calls him) mercilessly mocks all authority. As Jan Kott writes, Lucio

is the only disinterested hero, who is free from illusions, delusions, and prejudice. He clearly sees what unfolds before his eyes. He acts like an idiot even before the ruler himself. However, contrary to other Shakespearian rulers, he is a "fool" who has appointed himself to that position. He is not an employed jester. By performing his "sorry fooling" he dares criticize the authorities. That is why he cannot get away with it.8

Apart from letting the duke taste his daily portion of "Attic salt," Lucio, like every young man, enjoys life and its pleasures. He feels comfortable among women of vague conduct because he knows that in this position he is not responsible for anything, even if he impregnates one of them during his pursuit of pleasure. However, God is vigilant, and the duke, who is always turning green with envy at the sight of Lucio, forces him to become responsible and marry a prostitute. Moreover, he blesses the relationship of Angelo and Mariana, because he is perfectly aware of the fact that these marriages will be hell on earth for all parties involved; as Auden writes, "Eventually, in retributive punishment, the penalties approach infinity: first death, then torture."9 He himself marries Isabella, whose opinion he does not consult even once. Finally, the fortress of virtue is taken by this "pretentious Moses," as the critic Bohdan Korzeniewski called him.

In Shakespeare's Vienna, only the love of Claudio and Julia seems to be an honest one. All the other relationships are based on compulsion and revolution. Not a single one is a voluntary affair. In this play, the prearranged marriages are punishments instituted by the old on the young. Kott is right in claiming that "the most consistent solution of the play's 'happy' ending would be to leave Isabella and Lucio put in fetters in the epilogue on an empty stage."10


King Lear gives away everything that he has and what constitutes him (for "to have" and "to be" are the same thing in the case of a tyrant). He [End Page 119] gives away his power but still demands love and esteem—to be regarded in the same way as when he was a monarch. He wants to hold on to his prerogatives and retain his significance.

The paradox that he entangles himself in complicates and gives dynamism to the whole tragedy. The cook is late with dinner, so the former ruler cannot but have it out with his daughters. When the fool's sense of humor is tempered, Lear interprets it as censorship. Kent, his faithful servant, is put in the stocks for lèse-majesté of the new authority, so Lear takes it as a personal dishonor. Already, in the first act, he demands of a person he meets, "Dost thou know me, fellow?"11 We all know this kind of language—"Do you know who I am?" or "Do you know whom you are dealing with?" This is a question asked by every "statesman," "inspector," or "man of position."

However, Lear is afraid that perhaps he will not be recognized, and that the poor person has no idea who he is. Maybe not everyone knows that he is the ruler. How does that affect the monarch's majesty? Thus, Lear does not want to be just a king—that is already insufficient for him. By assuming a radically apolitical position in the spirit realm, he claims the right to rule the whole world as an untouchable monarch. In other words, he wants to be God, and from that position to legitimize the rule of the young. This theme was aptly detected by the literary critic Tadeusz Żeleński, who made the following remarks in a review of Leon Schiller's staging of the tragedy:

Glued to his throne and grown used to reverence, respect and frankincense, he believed in the fact that royalty is somehow connected to him and that he cannot be separated from it. He grew accustomed to it to such an extent that it has become insufficient. The jaded old man tries to redouble his power. He wants to indulge in his authority and squander it at the same time. He wants to anoint kings and himself remain the king of all. He wants to give away his riches and retain them. He no longer wants to be the king, the highest dignitary on the throne, but God himself—the giver and source of all good, the beloved, worshipped one, who basks in frankincense. He wants to be as merciful and generous as God himself, at the same time remaining equally avid for glory, and vindictive.12

However, Lear miscalculates his abilities, because the young believe in neither God nor king. On the contrary, they unmask the stupidity, emptiness, and barbarity, questioning the legacy of previous generations. The young have a reason of their own. Thus, Lear suffers a terrible defeat and dies. His children die as well, while the country falls [End Page 120] into the hands of utter amateurs: Kent and Edgar, a knight and a half idiot, respectively. This is a serious lesson for rulers "of a certain age."

In Measure for Measure, the basic rule of Shakespeare's theater—to speak as much and as loudly about oneself as possible (which is largely the basis for King Lear)—is suspended. The duke moves the pawns and figures on the chessboard of human fate exactly the way it pleases him, but he does so silently, hiding his face in the dark, under a monk's hood. He is, as Nietzsche writes, "a sacred ear, a silent well, and a grave for secrets."13 He plots, thwarts young people's plans, and intimidates them by employing a morality that depreciates life. The duke's stoicism—the spiritual mode of old people's physiology—reaches its summit during the conversation with Claudio:

Be absolute for death; either death or lifeShall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:If I do lose thee, I do lose a thingThat none but fools would keep. A breath thou art,Servile to all the skyey influencesThat dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,Hourly afflict. Merely, thou art Death's fool;For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun,And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble;For all th'accommodations that thou bear'stAre nurs'd by baseness.


Old age portrays the taste and color of developing youth as something that is usually overrated and will ultimately be regretted by everyone. The young seem to be gladiators in the arena of life and should thus be anesthetized for their own good. Their lives should unfold slowly, without pain, with many after-dinner naps and lots of lukewarm water. The culture of old age, of an old and decadent civilization, is a culture of analgesics.14 Those who have their ears ready will discern in the duke's words the biblical verse "Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas" (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Instead of living, no matter how—vehemently, instinctively, alone, or in a group—one should proliferate the riddles of being and waste time solving them. One of them is, as far as I can understand it, despair over human transience. However, is it not the essence of the idea that was put forward by Vincentio, who comforted Claudio and extended over him a leaky umbrella of stoic wisdom? Youth—let me restate it—knows no death because otherwise it would cease to be youth. That is why Vincentio's argument—the theory of a man "of a certain age"—is just [End Page 121] a waste of breath. Let us leave those men and allow them to fantasize about the inevitable end amongst themselves. However, they should not torment the young with their company and bring them bad luck. They should leave the young in peace.

The only problem is that care for young souls is just a cover, a means of achieving entirely different goals. The duke finds a new, comfortable position for himself within the new order—one that is apolitical and amoral—the position of a wise man (for wisdom is naturally amoral). Thus, he becomes an untouchable ruler. He encourages the young to study the books, read Ecclesiastes, and suffer in silence, thinking about death. However, one sphere of human activity, that is, politics, should be left to the old, for this is their playground. This is the final meaning of the duke's actions. He is not after private, family-oriented happiness but wants to secure for himself the greatest possible sphere of influence.

When Philip II of Macedon stood at the border of Sparta, he asked the Spartans which of the two they would prefer: that he should come to them as an enemy or as a friend. "Oudeteron," they answered"neither one, nor the other." This exchange came to my mind when I pondered the words uttered by the duke—that is, all of his friendly pieces of advice, which always come unwanted. My intuition, however, tells me that the young will neither listen nor stay away from politics. The young have no intention of growing old together with the wise men, for they simply do not care about them. Everyone should cultivate the past on his or her own, just like everyone cares for him- or herself when it comes down to finding a seat on a tram. Let everyone think independently and individually, far away from dubious "phrontisterions," and shape reality in such a way as he or she pleases.


Summing up, I would like to recall Kierkegaard's observation that youth courts others with its aesthetics, for it likes to be admired. The young treat life lightly; they do not study it but merely skim over it, gliding on its surface in a casual and irresponsible way. Treating the world as an arena for adventures, young people are unable to bind themselves permanently to something and identify with it. The young—those whose age does not exceed thirty—sense that there is no time to waste. They live fast and steep themselves in transitoriness, not considering what will happen later. The young ask the gods for everything that is beautiful and wish it to be plentiful. One could get the impression that they [End Page 122] seduce with their beauty and passion for life, but they just desire life, and in fact "this desire acts seductively."15

One symbol of youth is Mozart's Don Juan, "about whose history one cannot learn except listening to the noise of the waves" (EO, p. 92). For the young man, everything is a matter of the moment, while life is "the sum of discrete moments that have no coherence, and his life as the moment is the sum of moments and as the sum of moments is the moment . . . , this hovering between being and individual and a force of nature" (p. 96). The young lead their vagabond life in those places where one can hear joyous singing, away from morality and religion. Mozart's youth is both atheistic and superstitious—it has its own taste and, as it likes to think, unlimited possibilities, since in its bold and daring flights of fancy it lost the idea of marriage. In fact, it almost entirely dropped the concept of reality, understood as the sphere of obligation. The old cannot be pleased on any front. They would like to get rid of all youth but are afraid of a phantom like Banquo, who appears suddenly (in Macbeth) and spoils all the fun. Thus, the old try to enforce respect for age, which is symbolized by an elderly, bearded God before whom the young have to settle and get married. As Kierkegaard writes,

You talk so much about the erotic embrace—what is that in comparison with the matrimonial embrace? What richness of modulation in the matrimonial "Mine!" in comparison with the erotic! . . . What power there is in the matrimonial "Mine!"—for resolution and purpose have a deeper tone. What energy and possibility!—for what is so hard as will and what so soft? What power of movement! Not merely in heaven, and duty permeates the whole body of the universe to its utmost limits and prepares the way and gives assurance that to all eternity no obstacle shall be able to unsettle love! So let Don Juan keep the leafy bower and the knight the starry dome of heaven, if he can see nothing above it; marriage has its heaven still higher up.

(EO, p. 299)

What does "higher" mean? Where is it? It seems that this is where the old feel at home—on the level of ethics and religion. Ethics, according to Kierkegaard, is based on the repetition of certain forms ad nauseam. Marriage is an ideal example of this: it is an objectivization of youthful caprice into a reasonable act of will, which is one of the first symptoms of old age. Suddenly, young people fall into a trap of new obligations and their world of possibility is shattered, as it turns into endless hours of everyday chores. They receive a cage in place of freedom, and certainty instead of risk. Cigars, slippers, blankets for long winter evenings, [End Page 123] reading diaries, and watching the stock price indexes stabilize—these are the attributes of a mature, self-reliant old fart.

In Measure for Measure, we see the young fall into that trap. Vienna—the former capital of the lighthearted aesthetes—is magically turned by the duke into a wedding hall. Angelo and Mariana, Claudio and Julia, Lucio and his wife, Isabella—all of them become hostages of morality, whose necessary complement is marriage. In this way, the old age breeds old age in the form of ready-made fetuses like the former governor or an ex-nun. This is its task and vocation. Youth in this play is almost perverse, carved up and wrinkled. In the end, even the youthful Lucio wears makeup and is molded in the "massage parlours" he constantly visits.

In Measure for Measure, Isabella's morality, as the course of events proves, constitutes a system of steeply climbing feelings, while Angelo's morality is just an example of pretended legality. Initially, he wants to understand the nature of power, acquaint himself with the number and character of temptations to which a ruler is subjected. However, in the end he cannot rise above his own atavisms and is the first to fall victim to them. What is especially important in the background of all the generational tensions and contrasts is that Angelo is not punished for bad behavior but for lack of health. Later on, the young people's approach to morality changes under the influence of the duke and evolves in a less radical but more familiar and mundane direction.

What, then, is the morality of the duke himself? Well, his morality does not tell us who he is or what measures he takes regarding himself. Still, it does tell us a lot about others—about who they are and who they should be. In this sense, the duke observes the human Sturm und Drang from a position that is beyond good and evil, for in this play he is God. Harry V. Jaffa writes that

God may permit evil, because God can bring good out of evil. Men may not do evil that good may come, in part because there is no assurance that the good they intend will actually come to pass. Where the evil is certain and the good uncertain, to have the ends justify the means is unreasonable and impermissible. . . . Mariana and Isabella accept the bed-trick, not because of the doubleness of the benefit, but because each passionately desires the good it promises to each, and because they have the assurance of someone they think to be a holy man.16

Measure for Measure deals with a certain type of twofold regression. When the young learn that the old duke has left Vienna, they first drop their childish superstitions (beginning with a belief in God). Then they [End Page 124] undermine the meaning of the current morality and quickly give in to "childish aesthetics." The duke's regression follows a different path. He is tired of his childish pranks, which led Vienna to the brink of a moral downfall, and appoints to the position of governor a young legalist, who is supposed to impose an ethical order on the city and guard the letter of the law. There is a scene in which he fantasizes about impersonating the three crucial elements of a good life, as understood by the ancient Greeks. He wants others to perceive him as "a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier" (3.2.142).

But in the end, he decides otherwise: Vincentio absconditus announces himself and enters the city almost like a figure from the Old Testament. He is introduced as an otherworldly, biblical figure—a man who does not care whether he will be taken as a devil or considered God. He is the source of all codified values (which he is not himself the subject of) and impersonates divine retribution, meted out on all those who are "desperately mortal." In other words, he will institute a "measure for measure," restoring justice to the world. His position outside morality is explained by his philosophical attitude, which cannot be morally questioned. In other moments, he is busy with politics (or rather, spying), and no one who is sane would apply moral standards to politics, a sphere in which effectiveness counts above everything else. And finally, as "God," he is the guarantor of "mercy" and "justice." For example, the way he deals with Angelo is similar to that in which he treats Bernardine, the bandit whose morality he reawakens in order to persuade him to die willingly (4.3.80). All of this is done just to emphasize the greatness of his mercy at the very end.

The devilish and saintly ambiguity of the duke disheartens the young, who are humiliated by his goodness and fall on their knees before the unpredictable omniscience of the tyrant. Angelo calls: "O my dread lord, / I should be guiltier than my guiltiness / To think I can be undiscernible, / When I perceive your Grace, like power divine / Hath looked upon my passes" (5.1.364–68). At this point, Angelo and other young people already know that they cannot outshout old age in such areas as ethics or religion. What they are left with is a different competition, a different kind of race. However, the paddock for the lighthearted has just been closed by royal decree.

The topic of Measure for Measure is not the battle of generations. This "comedy" (interestingly, Witold Gombrowicz's favorite play by Shakespeare) is a story about the scheming of old age, which afflicts the young. It is also a story about the "mercy" and "magnanimity" of [End Page 125] the old. However, these two attributes are underpinned by a concealed agenda for revenge on the young, conceived in pure envy. In the epilogue, Angelo utters his last words: "I crave death more willingly than mercy" (5.1.474). However, he is awarded life. The enormously vital Lucio—a boy who always succeeds—is tied to the moment, because that is what God wants. He aptly summarizes his fate in the following words: "Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing death, / Whipping, and hanging" (5.1.520–21). It is only these two who ask anything of the old. The others are silent and have no clue as to what has just happened.

When looking back at their lives, the young believe them to be something they created and improved out of their own will. They consider its pulse to have been beating in accord with their own health and expectations. With the passing years, as they grow old, the young gradually become aware of the fact that life goes on somehow, without their control, and that its final shape is dependent on the authority of the influential gods. The rebellion of youth is driven out by a new generation and becomes essentially old, while the old formula of adaptation—amor fati (love of fate)—kicks in. In Measure for Measure, the failure of the young is certainly a lesson for them, and it brings something new into their lives: the founding capital for resentment. So, they sit down in a cosmic circle of rulers, who have only victims as their subjects, reigning in a heaven of marriage, where there is enough time to ponder fate and rewrite one's roles from scratch. "The gods arranged all this, and sent them their misfortunes in order that future generations might have something to sing about."17

Piotr Nowak
Bialystok University


1. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott (1980; repr. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920), pp. 58–59.

2. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. J. W. Lever, 2nd Arden Shakespeare (London: Routledge, 1992), 3.1.213–23. All subsequent citations are to this edition; references are to act, scene, and line.

3. Małgorzata Grzegorzewska, The Medicine of Cherries: English Renaissance Theories of Poetry (Warsaw: Instytut Anglistyki Uniwersytetu Warszawskego, 2003), p. 185.

4. W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 188. [End Page 126]

5. Allan Bloom, "Measure for Measure," in Love and Friendship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 329.

6. Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (1954), 2.12.1389a, available at rhetoric.; hereafter abbreviated Rh. References are to book, chapter, and the standard Bekker pagination.

7. Bloom, Love and Friendship, p. 339.

8. Jan Kott, "Głowa za wianek i wianek za głowe˛: Struktura wymiany w 'Miarce za miarke˛,'" in Kott, P łeć Rozalindy (Krakow: Wydawnictwo Literacke, 1992), p. 72; my translation.

9. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, p. 187.

10. Kott, P łeć Rozalindy, p. 74.

11. William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes, 3rd Arden Shakespeare (New York: Bloomsbury, 1997), 1.4.26. Reference is to act, scene, and line.

12. Tadeusz Żeleński (Boy), "Szekspir: Król Lir," in Żeleński-Boy, Romanse cieniów: Wybór recenzji teatralnych (Warsaw: PIW, 1987), p. 484; my translation.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom, trans. Thomas Common (London: T. N. Foulis, 1918), book 5, sec. 358.

14. See Leszek Kołakowski, The Presence of Myth, trans. Adam Czerniawski (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), chap. 9, "Myth in the Culture of Analgesics."

15. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part 1, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 99; hereafter abbreviated EO.

16. Harry V. Jaffa, "Chastity as a Political Principle: An Interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare as Political Thinker, ed. John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000), pp. 214–15.

17. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Samuel Butler (London: Longmans, Green, 1900), book 8, lines 578–80. [End Page 127]

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