Study Guide

Measure for Measure Sex

By William Shakespeare


Nay, but I know 'tis so. I saw him arrested, saw
him carried away; and, which is more, within these
three days his head to be chopped off.
I am too sure of it. And it is for getting Madam
Julietta with child. (1.2.64-66; 69-70)

In Vienna, sexuality and reproduction are regulated by the government.  "Fornication" (sex outside marriage) is illegal, which is why Angelo has Claudio arrested and sentenced to death after Juliet turns up pregnant.  The play asks us to consider whether or not sexuality should be legislated.  What do you think? 

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that raven down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die. (1.2.122-127)

Here, Claudio compares his sexual appetite to a kind of gluttony and suggests that having sex is like drinking rat poison – both lead to death.  This is pretty disturbing, don't you think?

Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat,
what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am
custom-shrunk. (1.2.79-81)

We've seen how some of the main characters view sexuality as something sinful and corrupting.  Yet, minor characters like Mistress Overdone don't view sex in quite the same way.  For Mistress Overdone and others, sex is big business (when paying customers aren't in jail or victims of the bubonic plague, that is). 

All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be
plucked down. (1.2.92-93)

Here we learn that all the brothels in Vienna's suburbs are scheduled to be torn down because prostitution is illegal and the spread of venereal disease is out of control. When we read this, we can't help but think of the suburbs outside of Shakespeare's London, where the sex industry thrived because it was hard for officials to regulate brothels outside the city limits.

FYI: In April of 1604 (the same year Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure), King James I ordered all the tenements and houses in the suburbs be torn down to prevent the spread of the plague, which killed about 36,000 people in 1603.

And have you nuns no farther privileges?
Are not these large enough?
Yes, truly. I speak not as desiring more,
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare. (1.4.1-5)

At this point in the play, we've already encountered the hyper-sexual Mistress Overdone, who runs a local brothel. Here, Shakespeare presents the other end of the spectrum in Isabella, who is about to become a nun who will take a vow of chastity, swearing off sex forever.

When Isabella says she wishes the sisterhood she's about to join was more "strict," we wonder why. Is she seeking refuge in the convent from the corruption of Vienna? Something else?

...but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season.
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? (2.2.201-204; 210-212)

There are a couple of things to notice here, where Angelo admits to the audience that he's lusting after Isabella. First, Angelo sees his sexual desire as something "corrupt" and compares his body to carrion (road kill) rotting in the sun. (This is similar to how Hamlet compares a pregnant – and therefore inherently sexual – woman's body to a "dead dog" that "breeds maggots" while rotting in the sun [Hamlet, 2.2.5]. Gross.)

We also notice that Angelo is turned on by Isabella's virtue. Just a few lines later, he confesses that he would never get as excited about a woman who isn't a virgin and that this is the first time he's ever experienced sexual desire. What does this suggest about Angelo's character?

No holy father, throw away that thought.
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom. Why I desire thee
To give me secret harbor, hath a purpose
More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends
Of burning youth. (1.3.1-6)

When the Duke shows up at his place, the Friar assumes that he's come to talk about his sex life.  The Duke, of course, thinks the "dribbling dart of love" is for sissies and young people.  Is Shakespeare making a reference to <em>Romeo and Juliet,</em> where Romeo frequents Friar Laurence's cell to discuss Rosaline and Juliet? If the Duke is so opposed to love and sexual desire, what is it about Isabella that makes him change his mind at the end of the play?  Is the Duke, like Angelo, turned on by Isabella's virginity? 

Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die.
More than our brother is our chastity. (2.4.198-199)

When Angelo propositions Isabella, he puts our girl in the worst possible position by asking her to choose between sleeping with him and letting her brother die. Almost immediately, Isabella determines that her virginity is more valuable than her brother's life and the play asks us to think about whether or not Isabella makes the correct decision. At the same time, Shakespeare lets Isabella (and the audience) off the hook when the Duke hatches a plan to save Claudio's life and Isabella's virtue.

Brain Snack: In Shakespeare's main source for the play (Promos and Cassandra), the young woman who corresponds to Isabella's character actually sleeps with a corrupt judge to save her brother's life. Why do you think Shakespeare decided that his heroine would refuse to have sex?

This night's the time
That I should do what I abhor to name,
Or else thou diest tomorrow.
Thou shalt not do 't.
O, were it but my life,
I'd throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin. (3.1.113-119)

For Isabella, the thought of having sex is so horrifying that she can't even bring herself to say the word out loud. When she declares that she'd gladly sacrifice her life for Claudio, it becomes clear that, for Isabella, sex is worse than death.

This idea surfaces repeatedly throughout the play. Elsewhere, Isabella says, "Better it were a brother died at once / Than that a sister, by redeeming him, / Should die forever" (2.4.106-108), meaning that Isabella thinks she'll go to hell if she hooks up with Angelo (2.4). For more on this, check out "Quotes: Mortality."

Behold, behold. where Madam Mitigation
comes! I have purchased as many diseases under
her roof as come to—
To what, I pray?
To three thousand dolors a year.
Ay, and more.
A French crown more.
Thou art always figuring diseases in
me, but thou art full of error. I am sound. (1.2.44-53)

When Lucio talks about how much money he's spent at Mistress Overdone's brothel, he associates coins with venereal disease. A "French crown" is a French gold coin and also refers to a bald head, which is an unfortunate consequence of the "French disease" (syphilis).

This is pretty gross, but Lucio's logic also makes a lot of sense because coins are put into circulation in the same way that venereal diseases (like syphilis) are exchanged.