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The parting instructions that begin Measure for Measure are strikingly cryptic. The Duke is copious with maxims but short on particulars. His opening speech to Escalus is incoherent:
Of government the properties to unfold Would seem in me t'affect speech and discourse, Since I am put to know that your own science Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice My strength can give you. Then no more remains But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able, And let them work. (I.i.3-9)
Let what work? Something is missing, editors explain: "There is ... wide agreement that a lacuna exists after sufficiency, or, less probably, after able."(1) Yet the text is dramatically effective as it stands. In this scene the Duke refuses to articulate details his deputies expect to hear. They are confused, and his "haste may not admit" elaboration (I.i.62). Ill-informed, in his absence they must act in his place. That the commands are unclear, I submit, not only sets up Angelo to enforce the law to his own "precise" (I.iii.50) temperament, but also foregrounds a structural problem of imperial deputation: persons acting in another's person must improvise. Even given a detailed script, they could not follow it but would find themselves accountable for their own decisions in predicaments unforeseen by the authorities whom they serve.
Performed the same year the name "Great Britain" was coined, Measure for Measure (1604) interrogates, among other things, imperial concerns. Jonathan Dollimore finds that Vienna's mechanisms of surveillance demonize sexuality in order to legitimate authoritarian repression; Leah Marcus suggests that the Duke's eventual sway represents the "victory of unlocalized law" over older local jurisdictions. Examining dialectics of subversion and containment, Dollimore takes Vienna as a figure for the authoritarian State, Marcus, for London under imperial Jacobean control.(2) I want to widen the frame around such readings by applying the Duke's troubles with Vienna not so much to empire's arrival in London as to its projection outward from London. In this application, elisions in the Duke's instructions might correspond to a central power's ignorance of the circumstances its agents encounter abroad.
To set problems of deputation and surveillance in Shakespeare's Vienna against analogous difficulties in the London East India Company, chartered 1600, at managing agents and effecting far-flung designs, freshly historicizes the play and underscores ironies in Britain's early imperial endeavor. What I mean to pursue might be termed not cultural poetics but "cultural logistics," a phenomenon quickened and magnified by the expansion of world trade. The phrase draws attention to the ways that human and mechanical forces are mobilized in the achievement of concrete social tasks. In logistics, intentionality meets materiality. How is it that work gets done: that particular goods and services are produced, laws conceived and enforced, theaters built in London, colonies planted in the New World, corporate profits secured in the East Indies? What social and personal motives conjoin in the execution of such initiatives? How do various groups, and individuals, formulate--and against what impediments, if at all, do they implement--their strategies and policies?
To frame such questions marks my endeavor to bring "cultural poetics," with its textual emphases, closer to "cultural materialism," which more rigorously postulates that material and discursive practices hold dialectial--mutually constitutive--relations.(3) By analyzing discursive structures that stipulate political relations and monitor material traffic; by juxtaposing such discourses to practical developments in their fields of reference; and by examining such structures and processes as they "circulate" in theatrical representations, one may explore cultural-materialist dialectics. Theaters in particular play out such dialectics both in-house, embodying fictions, and relative to the social worlds from which, as reflective institutions, they draw audiences.
To propose a cultural logistics redresses a problem in new historicist practice noted by Albert H. Tricomi and others: the commitment, through Foucauldian study of power-fields and Geertzian "thick description," to systems-analysis. Stressing synchrony over diachrony, new historicists, ironically, may miss history.(4) Work, however, both maintains and transforms the social world. Attention to the social and physical energies that shape work demands study not only of inclusive systems but also, in Raymond Williams's terms, of dominant, residual, and emergent structures in historical process.
Any number of plays are amenable to such analysis. In the formal dialectics of secular drama, collisions of will, pivotal conflicts among ontologically more or less equivalent persons, produce action and consequence. Shakespeare's characters have designs on each other, and their engagements transform them. Throughout his career, the playwright worries relations between thought and action, will and achievement, intention and consequence. Thus Richard of Gloucester (in language congenial to mariners) nerves himself up to try for the throne,
Like one that stands upon a promontory, And spies a far-off shore where he would tread, Wishing his foot were equal with his eye. (3 Henry VI III.ii.135-37)
Later, soliloquizing like Iago, Richard savors a growing mastery as his schemes advance. The more conscientious Brutus suffers acute turmoil in the interim "Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion" (Julius Caesar II.i.63-64), a queasy interval that ensnares his successor Hamlet for most of the play. In narrower context, Troilus confides to Cressida that, in love, "the will is infinite and the execution confin'd" (Troilus and Cressida III.ii.82), a sentiment bawdily echoed by Macbeth's Porter, who notes that drink "provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance" (Macbeth II.iii.28-29). Initially, the prospect of killing Duncan paralyzes Macbeth ("function / Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not"); contemplating the deed he reflects, "If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly" (I.iii. 140-42; I.vii.1-2). Later, steeped in blood, he moves to erase the gap between thought and action: "From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand" (IV.i.146-48). The more benign Prospero enjoys, through Ariel, marvelously deft deployment of his visions; yet he maintains such service by frightful threats (Tempest I.ii.237-300), and his bids at moral reform by magic work unevenly at best.(5)
While the above plays probe psychological logistics of thought and action, Measure for Measure more provocatively explores related social dynamics of active governance, where legislative will entrusts executive function to deputies. The play starkly illuminates a cultural logistics of proto-imperial initiative. My aim here is to provide not an exhaustive reading of Measure for Measure but a new understanding of the play's reach and historical pertinence. Rather than passing, in typical new historicist manner, from timely anecdote to widened literary analysis, I will reverse the sequence and, moving from the play to the East India Company, follow up the new historicist claim that literature and theater engage historical process dialectically: shaped by and shaping it. To what extent, and how, do would-be dominant designs reach fruition in the action of Measure for Measure and in the historical doings of the London Company? What, if any, relations may one infer between these regions of analysis?
I recognize the danger of arguing by analogy--as if homologies indicate shared causalities, or arbitrary specimens of a cultural field were synecdoches of the whole. Nevertheless I would suggest that Measure for Measure, and plays that shared its logistical concerns, representing proto-imperial dilemmas, probably helped to foster mentalities alert to the challenges faced by London's East India Company. The evidence for this is elusive. I have found no reference to the play in Company documents. But William Keeling's crew did perform Hamlet and Richard II during idle hours of an eastward voyage in 1607 and 1608.(6) Not a few East India Company mariners and factors--not to mention shareholders--must have been playgoers. Louis Montrose has argued convincingly that theater articulated "symbolic frameworks for the affirmation of both human resourcefulness and human endurance. By so doing, it may have helped some in its heterogeneous audience of social players not only to adjust to but also to manipulate to their own advantage the ambiguities and conflicts, the hardship and opportunities arising from the contradictory realities of change" (Purpose of Playing, p. 40). Dialectics of thought and action, productive collisions of will, are central to Shakespearean drama, and they were likewise fundamental to personal and social initiative in the world he addressed. His plays drew energy from social life and spoke to the experiences, as well as the exotic cravings, of spectators. Theaters intruded themselves into the thoughts and actions of playgoers, likely instilling initiative. Certainly, commentators at the time assumed stage-plays capable of transforming people, for better or worse.(7)
Similitude does not prove causation; but discerning subjects will make productive connections. I do not suggest that Shakespeare meant spectators to link the play to the doings of Governor Sir Thomas Smythe and his fellows. Yet its systematic presentation of challenges besetting …