AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
The notion that Duke Vincentio is deliberately leaving Vienna in order, "to find out whether Angelo is all that he appears," (1) or "to test the validity of Angelo's pious puritanism" (2) is by now a commonplace in Measure/or Measure criticism. This "test" theory goes back at least as far as Charlotte Ramsay Lennox's Shakespear Illustrated of 1753, and echoes down the centuries in many commentaries on, and editions of, the play as if it were a self-evident truth hardly worth the trouble of argument and demonstration. G. Wilson Knight is an influential supporter of it:
[The Duke] performs the experiment of handing the reins of government to a man of ascetic purity who has an hitherto invulnerable faith in the rightness and justice of his own ideals--a man of spotless reputation and self-conscious integrity, who will have no fears as to the 'justice' of enforcing precise obedience. The scheme is a plot, or trap: a scientific experiment to see if extreme ascetic righteousness can stand the test of power. (3)
According to Nevill Coghill, the play, like The Book of Job, some of Chaucer's tales, and, he might have added, the medieval play Everyman, shows "the human world as a testing-ground": "[It] pictures the world as a place where all are continually liable to tests, and some to tests increasingly severe, that they may show their virtues. Isabella and Angelo are tested to the core." (4) Coghill (pp.24, 21) discerns a pervasive "pattern of testing" running through the narrative design of the play, a pattern which involves even minor characters (5) like Pompey, Barnadine and Mistress Overdone:
We have seen who the tested are. Who is the tester? In all cases, sometimes directly and sometimes at one or two removes, it is the Duke. He is the primum mobile of the play.
Louise Schleiner has recently endorsed and perpetuated Coghill's allegorical view by developing a full-blown version of the "test" theory: she depicts the duke as "a man of tests, a character modeled on the absentee-master figure in a group of parables from the synoptic gospels"; she habitually refers to him as "the testing master" who tests, not only Angelo and Isabella, but also minor characters "by observing their conduct from his absentee perspective and then determining appropriate judgments"; in fact, she regards the duke as a unifying factor in a play often regarded as structurally divided, since he is "the testing master from beginning to end," contriving "the opening situation to test Angelo, Escalus, and the government he expects of them." (6) And, as a final example, T. F. Wharton has linked Marston's The Malcontent with Measure for Measure as plays of "moral experiment": "It is impossible not to treat the entire leave-of-absence ploy as Vicentio's experiment on Angelo's virtue: to discover either that his virtue is a fraud, and the true self will be revealed, or that his virtue is real, but that power will corrupt it." (7) Among the better known twentieth-century critics (besides Knight, Coghill and Schleiner) who unquestioningly subscribe to the "test" or " moral experiment" theory are F. R. Leavis, Peter Ure, and Anne (Barton) Righter. (8) I make bold, in view of the intimidating weight of opinion arrayed against me, to suggest that there might be an alternative reading of the text, preferable to the one which has been unanimously adopted, and, further, that even if the text were believed to support the "test" theory, the theory itself suffers from serious deficiencies of logic, coherence and plausibility.
In the opening scene of Measure for Measure Duke Vincentio is curiously reticent about divulging his motives for leaving Vienna in such haste. The urgency of immediate departure is, in fact, invoked as the reason that there is no time for the briefest explanation, and Angelo and Escalus receive their several "commissions" (the warrants confirming their new authority) very much in doubt as to the nature and extent of their delegated powers. A little later, speaking privately to Friar Thomas (who, it is implied, has insinuated that the duke is seeking an opportunity for a clandestine love-affair) the duke says Angelo supposes him traveled to Poland, for that is the destination he has "strewed ... in the common ear"; (9) his hidden agenda or real purpose, he confides, is to permit Angelo ("a man of stricture and firm abstinence") to enforce the "strict statutes and most biting laws" (I. iii. 12, 19) which he, the duke, reproaches himself for having allowed to fall into desuetude. We should note that he had invested Angelo with his full ducal power, telling him "Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart" (I. i. 44-45), and repeating the point by advising Angelo that he may "enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good" (I. i. 65-66); his words to the Friar, however, indicate that he fully expects, and even hopes, that Angelo will be far less lenient and permissive than he had been and will, in the "ambush" of the duke's name, "strike home," i.e., impose the law to the letter. When he later learns of Angelo's "severity" towards rampant sexual transgression, the duke approves of it, and calls it necessary (III. ii. 100-101). It may also be that the "commission" Angelo received from the duke explicitly commanded him to be strict. Giving Escalus his "commission" the duke directs him not to deviate from it (I. i. 13-14), implying that it contains written instructions. (10)
Taking the Friar even further into his confidence, the duke promises to give him "moe reasons" for his departure (though he never actually does so in the course of the represented stage action), but does offer what appears to be an additional one:
Lord Angelo is precise, Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses That his blood flows, or that his appetite Is more to bread than stone. Hence we shall see If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (11) (1. iii. 50-55)
These lines, the focal point of this chapter, have been widely interpreted as providing not simply a refinement of motive but a second and an altogether different motive, i.e., that the duke is leaving in order to test Angelo. In Wharton's view the words "confesses" and "seemers" seem to imply that Angelo "is at best repressed, at worst a hypocrite, and that his appetites are indeed as strong as other men's." Wharton continues: "When [Vincentio] goes on to speak of seeing if power will change purpose, he is directly speaking of an experiment on Angelo. Having placed this suspect character in a position of influence he will test the proposition that all authority corrupts" (1989, p.63). At first glance, there seems little reason to doubt the interdependent notions that the duke is contriving a test for Angelo, that he is testing him because he suspects him of hypocrisy, and that his hypocrisy takes the form of some kind of sexual fallibility perspiring under the mask of frigid puritanism and punctiliousness.
The idea of a "test" seems to announce itself at the outset. In the first scene the duke tells Angelo that "[s]pirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues" (I. i. 35-36), a line which, though ambiguous, may be interpreted as meaning that the …