The concept of tragi-comedy
Tragic-comedy was a hybrid form of drama which flourished for a brief period in the seventeenth century. Modern critics have offered various definitions of what tragi-comedy meant for Jacobeans; and the treatment of ‘Measure for Measure’ as a tragi-comedy has had a long history. One modern critic, for instance, describes ‘Measure for Measure’ as deviating from the more familiar paths of dramatic entertainment, and claims that the Jecobeans themselves would probably have termed in a tragic-comedy. Another critic agrees that ‘measure for Measure’ is in effect a tragic-comedy; it employs in the main action all the conventional devise of this genre, namely disguise, mistaken identity, complex intrigue, and the surprise ending. However, it may be pointed out that this devise, which our critic describes as typical of tragic-comedy, were actually typical of any comedy belonging to the Jacobean times. Yet another modern critic has defined tragic-comedy as a representation of inversion, deflation, and paradox; while another critic finds the region of tragic-comedy somewhere between the tragic and comic extremes, and warns that its limits are not to be too precisely fixed.
Guarini’s theory of tragi-comedy
Within the loose terms if these definition, ‘Measure for Measure’ may easily de accommodate. These comments in effect treat the play as a comedy with certain tragic passages and implications. However, it is necessary to point out that the Jecobeans understood something far more complex by the term tragi-comedy. In a book published in 1601, a critic Guarini (an Italian critic who stated his view of tragi-comedy in ho book ‘Compendio deiia Poesia Tragicomica, 1601) defined tragi-comedy as a closed blend or fusion seeming disparates; taking from tragedy its great characters, but not its action; a likely story, but not a true one; delight, not sadness; danger, not death; and taking from comedy laughter that was not dissolute, modest attractions, a well-tied knot, a happy reversal and, above all, the comic order of things. This avoidance of extremes was said to be morally justified in the conditions prevailing in the world at that time. In ancient times, tragedy had performed the homoeopathic function of purging terror with terror, and pity with pity. But in a Christian society, which believed in the redemption of sinners, such drastic purges were unnecessary and unwelcome. Equally obsolete was the ancient comic purge of dissoluteness as a cure for melancholy. Hence, tragi-comedy which qualified extremes and promoted a balanced condition of mind was held to be the best form of drama for the Jacobean world. Thus tragi-comedy was expected to employ a mixed style, a mixed action, and mixed characters; passing from side to side, it worked amongst contraries, sweetly tempering their composition.
The ingredients of a tragi-comedy in ‘Measure for Measure’
This theory of tragi-comedy became widely influential; and term tragi-comedy, previously fallen into disrepute, soon took on a new dignity. Whether or not Shakespeare had read this book continuing the new theory, its ideas were in the air after 1602 and many well have promoted the design of ‘Measure for Measure’, with its blend of serious and comic, extreme peril and happy solution, mixed characters, and a well-tied knot. Structurally, the play is divisible into almost mathematical halves. Through the first part, there is a progressive mounting of tension between opposed characters and conflicting principles, with no more than vague hope of a solution offered by the continuing presence of the Duke on the scene of events. At the point of a total deadlock in act III, scene l, the movement is reversed by the Duke’s direct intervention. From this point onwards the Duke, in his part of moderator, is engaged tirelessly in passing from side to side, working amongst contraries, and shaping a new course for the drama. Accordingly, the play ends with pardon instead of punishment, marriages instead of deaths, reconciliation of enemies, harmony and, above all, the comic order of things.
Mixed action: Serious and comic elements in act I
Even a superficial glance at the play shows that it contains a mixture of comic and serious elements, with serious elements occasionally bordering on the tragic. The play begins seriously with the Duke’s entrusting the government of the country to Angelo and himself withdrawing from the scene. Then comes a comic scene with Lucio, two other gentlemen, besides Pompey and Mistress Overdone, providing amusement and mirth to us. This scene ends with a serious episode, verging on the tragic, when Claudio, who is facing death, entrusts Lucio with an argent task which is to contact Claudio’s sister Isabella and ask her to try to save Claudio’s life by pleading with Angelo and obtaining a pardon for the unhappy man. The next scene is again serious. Here the Duke explains to Friar Thomas his reasons for having temporarily renounced his official duties, and describes his desire to move about in the disguise of a friar. The scene which follows is again a serious one. Here Lucio contacts Isabella at the convent, where Isabella is hoping to be admitted as a nun or probation, and communicates to her a message from her brother. Isabella is now deflected from her original purpose of joining the convent because she must strive to save her brother’s life by pleading his case to Angelo.
Mixed action: Serious and comic elements in act II
Act II opens on a serious note. Angelo is determined to stick to his original decision to have Claudio executed for having committed fornication. Angelo rejects Escalus’s recommendation on Claudio’s behalf and says that, even if he himself (namely Angelo) were to commit the kind of offence which has been committed by Claudio, he would be prepared to face the same punishment. Then this opening scene of act ii takes a comic turn when Elbow, a police constable, produces Froth and Pompey before Escalus and Angelo for trial. Elbow amuses us by his ignorance and by his malapropisms; Forth amuses us by his stupidity; while Pompey amuses us by his witty remarks. Then follows a highly dramatic scene with a serious import. This scene describes Isabella’s interview with Angelo, and the outcome of that interview. Isabella pleads for mercy to be shown towards her brother, and asks for a pardon for him. But Angelo sticks to his original decision and then, on being pressed further, asks Isabella to meet him again on the following day. The next scene in this act is again a serious one, with the Duke offering consolation to Juliet and urging her to repent of her sinfulness. In the scene, which follows, Isabella’s second interview with Angelo is described. This is again a serious scene which verges almost on tragedy because Angelo threatens to torture Claudio before having him executed in case Isabella does not agree to surrender her virginity to him to save her brother’s life. As Isabella is determined to preserve her virginity and not to surrender it even to save her brother’s life, we feel overwhelmed by a sense of the peril which Claudio and Isabella now face.
Mixed action: Serious and comic elements in act III
Three very serious developments take place I the opening scene of act iii. They are the Duke sermon to Claudio on life and death; Isabella’s denunciation of Claudio who wants her to surrender her virginity to Angelo in order to save Claudio’s life; and the Duke’s scheme of substituting Mariana for Isabella to satisfy Angelo’s lust as the price for saving Claudio’s life. The second scene of this act is, however, a comic one, with Pompey being once again under arrest for continuing as a professional pimp. The comedy in this scene is provided chiefly by Lucio who makes fun of Pompey instead of bailing him out as Pompey has expected. Lucio also amuses us in this scene by his sarcastic comments on Angelo and on the Duke. But the scene ends on a serious note with the Duke saying in a soliloquy that he now proposes to use “craft” against Angelo’s “vice”, meaning that he would send Mariana disguised as Isabella to Angelo to satisfy Angelo’s lustful desire and thus to through dust into Angelo’s eyes.
Mixed action: Serious and comic elements in act IV
Act IV is again a mixture of comic and serious elements. In the opening scene of this act, Mariana is prevailed upon the disguise herself as Isabella and go to satisfy Anglo’s lustful desire. In the following scene, we derive considerable amusement from the conversation between the Provost and Pompey, and then from the conversation between Pompey and Abhorson, the executioner. However, the situation becomes serious when fresh orders for the execution of Claudio are received from Angelo. There is an element of seriousness also in the Duke’s planning to save Claudio’s life. The scene which follow is again a comic one, with Pompey saying in a soliloquy that he is well acquainted with many of the inmates of this prison because these fellows had been his own clients and Mistress Overdone’s customers at her brothel. The comedy continues with Barnardine’s refusal to be executed. However, the situation becomes serious when the Duke falsely tells Isabella that her brother has already been executed and that Claudio’s severed head has been sent to Angelo for Angelo’s satisfaction. In the following scene Angelo and Escalus are informed that the Duke is now about to return to the capital in order to resume charges of his government. The two scenes which follow are inconsequential.
Act V: The reversal and the happy ending
Act V is wholly serious except for the fact that the play has a happy ending. Much of the suspension that could have been created by Shakespeare in this scene is absence because we know that the Duke had been moving about in the city in disguise of a friar, that Friar Lodowick was no other that the Duke himself, that Claudio is alive and safe, and so on. However, the charges brought against Angelo by Isabella and Mariana are highly dramatic; and the situation becomes serious and grim when the Duke sentences Angelo to death, saying that the law demands the life of Angelo against Claudio’s life, that the law demands death for death, and the law insists upon Measure for Measure. But when Claudio is produced before the Duke by the Provost, the sentence of death against Angelo is withdrawn. Likewise, the sentence of death against Lucio too is withdrawn. Angelo has now become Mariana’s lawful husband; Lucio has been compulsorily marred to the girl Kate whom he had made pregnant; Claudio is called upon to compensate Juliet whom he had wronged; Escalus and the Provost are promoted to highest posts; and the Duke himself offers to get married to Isabella. Thus act V contains the reversal and happy ending which are essential in a tragi-comedy.
The well-tied knot
A knot or a complication is an essential feature of all drama. It is therefore not surprising that the theory of -comedy should refer to the need of well-tied knot. The knot in ‘Measure for Measure’ begins to be tied in the course of Isabella’s first interview with Angelo when Angelo refuses to budge from his position. By the end of her second interview with him, the knots have fully been tied. During this interview Angelo offers to pardon Claudio if Isabella surrenders her virginity and satisfies Angelo’s sexual desire for her. Isabella firmly refuses to accept the bargain. Here is a complication, indeed: Isabella is determined to preserve her chastity, whereas Angelo is determined not to pardon Claudio unless she agrees to his terms. The deadlock is complete.
Mixes characters are not necessarily the criterion of a tragic-comedy alone. Almost every play contains characters of a mixed kind: good characters, evil characters, and characters that are partly good and partly evil. ‘Measure for Measure’ is therefore no exception in this respect. We have here characters who are wholly given to voice. They are Pompey and Mistress Overdone. Then there is a character, namely Angelo, who has always been pious and free from all vice, but who turns evil when faced with a temptation. Angelo has always been thought by the people and by the Duke himself to be a Puritan, free from all carnal desires, and a man devoted to study and other intellectual pursuit. But as soon as Angelo happens to see a young virgin, namely Isabella, he experiences an uncontrollable sexual desire for her and would like to seduce her. Thus the puritan turns into a veritable scoundrel. Subsequently, he even goes back on his promise to pardon Claudio’s life. Then there is the Duke who is a personification of kindness and benevolence; and yet he has his faults and failings which are all too human. The Provost is a very good man. He is highly sympathetic; and sympathy is a quality which, as the Duke remarks, is rare in jailors. There is Escalus, another good and kind-hearted man. Isabella is a model of virtue. She is a personification of chastity, though she suffers also from a serious flaw in her character. The flaw in her is that she makes a fetish of her virtue and, as a consequence, denounces her brother in terms which take away considerably from our admiration for her.
The virtues of moderation
‘Measure for Measure’ is a tragic-comedy also in the sense that it teaches us the virtues of moderation. Shakespeare in this play lays great stress on the virtues of moderation as upheld by the Duke. The play’s message seems to be that excess is undesirable and harmful in every sphere of life, and that moderation should be the aim. Even excess in virtue is not desirable, as is demonstrated by the portrayal of Isabella. Isabella is certainly to be admired for her determination to preserve her chastity to saving the life of her brother by surrendering her chastity. The excessive Puritanism of Angelo is also to be deplored, because it is this excessive Puritanism which leads to a crisis in his life. As soon as Angelo gets an opportunity to come into contact with a young virgin, his repressed desire come to the surface and prove his undoing. Then there is Lucio whose excessive self-indulgences and addiction to irresponsible talk land him in trouble. Escalus represents perhaps the golden mean, as does the Provost. But it is the Duke who, more than Escalus and Provost, exemplifies moderation. Before the play opens, the Duke was carrying on his government in a rather half-hearted manner, permitting too much freedom of conduct to his subjects. At the opening of the play, we find him realizing the folly of allowing his subjects too much license, and therefore entrusting the reins of government to Angelo who is reputed to be an extremely strict man. Then we find Angelo going to the other extreme and showing too much strictness. His sentencing Claudio to death on a charge of fornication and his failure to recognize the extenuating circumstances, under which Claudio committed the offence, show that Angelo is unduly tyrannical. Then comes the sudden change in Angelo who seeks the gratification of his newly aroused lust. The Duke, in his disguise as a friar, learns many lessons. He finds Claudio feeling terrible frightened of death; and he tries to offer comfort to the condemned man. He meets Juliet to whom he teaches the lesson of genuine repentance. But it is in the judgments which the Duke delivers in the final act that we see him exercising the principle of moderation which the Duke shows but a regrettable weakness in delivering these judgments. It may be said, for instance, that the Duke inflicts no punishment at all into anybody, not even upon Angelo who has proved himself a scoundrel, and not even Lucio who had slandered the Duke himself. The Dukes judgments may be regarded not as moderation but as a complete disregard of the claims of justice. But our presumption here is that the various culprits have learnt their lessons, and that their cases do not call for any punishment beyond that which they had already undergone in the form of suspense, mental torture, and forced marriages. Moderation then may almost certainly be regarded as the chief lesson which can be derived for the play. For Jacobean audiences, and probably for Shakespeare himself as a thoughtful man of his time, the importance of the ‘Via media’ may have seemed paramount in real life and likewise in dramas concerned with contemporary issues.
The mixed style of ‘Measure for Measure’ shows itself in the use of verse generally and the use of prose wherever necessary. Prose is inevitable in the comic parts of the play, while verse is necessary for emotional and passionate speeches and for serious purposes in general.