This was final paper for ENGL 330 – Shakespeare: Romances and Comedies
Shakespeare and the measured modern morally ambiguous superhero
One would hardly take Measure for Measure to be a superhero story, but when we look a little deeper at the Duke, his actions, his methods, and those that oppose him, there are some striking parallels. While I don’t think that Shakespeare intended to invent the costumed crusader sub-genre, this entry which is often considered a problem play among Shakespeare’s bibliography is surprisingly applicable in the modern surveillance-riddled state and the modern comic book mythology. In this, Shakespeare inexplicably writes what can be read as a prototype schematic for modern superhero stories approximately 336 years before the first issue of Batman was ever published.
To start we have the characters. The Duke is our caped crusader, wealthy, powerful in his own right, but incapable of enacting the changes he wants to see done. This is partly because the changes that he wants to enact are unpopular and would be hazardous to his well being and to the reputation of his ‘public persona’. Thus he uses the power of an obscured identity to begin pushing pawns into place. The Duke defers the responsibility of the changes being made as ‘trouble’ being caused by an ‘upstart’, Angelo, who he selects with “Special Soul” (1.1.17) as someone who does not deserve to be in charge of the region. This sows distrust and unrest within the region. We even begin to see the unrest trickle into the streets, not wholly dissimilar to the ‘street-level’ crime and disreputability of the modern comic book city setting. This is a means of stage management for the Duke but on a terrifying Orwellian scale.
From his very arrival on stage, the Duke is in management and spin control mode. The opening ramble that the Duke engages in is meant to accomplish a couple things. Firstly, it indicates that a conversation is already in motion, and it is clearly a conversation about the matters of state. This is equivalent to a modern character walking onto the scene and saying “Right, let’s have a meeting about those numbers on Monday” to clue the audience in that the character is involved in business of some sort. This is an “Oh, he probably knows what he is doing” moment for the audience. And the Duke most assuredly does know what he is doing even though everyone in close proximity to him is blind to it. Combined with the amount of talking the Duke does during this opening section, the audience is being befuddled as much as Angelo will be. A key quote from the Duke’s opening diatribe is, “There is our commission, From which we would not have you warp” (1.1.13-14). The Duke is admitting that these are his orders he is handing to Escalus to give to his patsy, Angelo. But the flowery nonsense and patter that he has been throwing around for the last 30 seconds or so, as well as whatever amount of the conversation we are not privy to as it took place before the start of the play, has effectively obscured this. Fast and circuitous talking in order to confuse people into agreeing is a more common tactic than one would think for the modern comic book hero as well. These characters strive to be paragons of truth but have to hide the reality of their goals and means to achieve them. Thus they must construct these twisting phrases to evade. They manage the stage of their reality, their life, and the lives of those around them.
Isabella falls into this bizarre role of being pushed into a position of agency and then being objectified only to be saved while still being objectified. This is unfortunately still a common trope in modern storytelling where gender frequently is used to code efficacy and agency available to the character. However, this can be read as intentional within Measure for Measure as a means of highlighting the problem with this mindset as opposed to the modern sexism of the same role usages. Isabella is called upon to act as an agent of negotiation by her brother as she is preparing to join a nunnery. Her question prior to Lucio’s arrival is a strange one and creates an interesting foil to the Duke and his alternate persona powered agency. “Isabella : And have you nuns no farther privileges? Nun: Are not these large enough? Isabella: 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). Isabella is concerned about her own agency, the dangers therein, and wishes to adopt a new persona in order to have this power taken away. In this she is an antithesis of the Duke who assumes a false identity in order to gain further power. Her timing seems almost as if she knows what will happen shortly within the story and is looking for sanctuary from the sprawling machinations of the Duke which again strikes as similar to the Duke and his vast knowledge of events.
Much like the modern comic book hero, the Duke is pathological. Unlike a great number of the comic book characters, this pathology doesn’t seem to be rooted in a traumatic experience. We are given no true origin story into the reasoning of the Duke’s persona or how he came about ‘needing’ to use such duplicitous tactics in order to maintain the semblance of control of the citizens and state. He is hell-bent on not only being the hero character but also being loved as the hero. He is willing to go to life-threatening lengths in order to see his goals come to fruition. We see no rationale or reason for his behaviors.
Likewise, the Duke creates many of his own conflicts or manipulates conflict into a situation that he is comfortable engaging in. Instead of directly handling the corruption issues, he creates a conflict that he can attack from his alter-ego. For a modern example, we have the Batman/Bruce Wayne duality. Bruce Wayne could funnel his funds and resources into helping alleviate the poverty that creates the situations that drive people to crime. Similarly he could funnel some of those funds and resources into better mental health care facilities and better equipping and staffing the prison facilities. But instead he chooses to help perpetuate the circumstances that allow him to continue his crusade. Friar Thomas calls the Duke on this same behavior, “It rested in your grace/To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleased,/And it in you more dreadful would have seemed/Than in Lord Angelo”(1.3.32-35). You could have done this yourself. You could have solved the problems. And the Duke evades yet again. “Twould be my tyranny to strike and call them/For what I bid them do. For we bid this be done,/When evil deeds have their permissive pass/And not the punishment” (1.3.36-39). He knows he is at fault and does not wish to be blamed. He doesn’t effectively solve any of the problems of the state other than creating a situation where the citizenry stop complaining not unlike Bruce Wayne creating and perpetuating a need for his alternate persona.
Another modern concept that seemed to have slipped into the play is the idea of a surveillance state. In modern works, heros utilize security camera feeds and various technology-driven intrusions in the dealings of whatever city they operate within. The Duke is amazingly well informed on his subjects and their lives without having such technology available for him to abuse. He openly admits to having essentially stalked Angelo. “There is a kind of character in thy life/That to th’ observer doth thy history/Fully unfold” (1.1.27-29). This should be unnerving to anyone who is told this, but Angelo is more caught up in the compliments that the Duke has laid upon him and the task that is being given to him. He does not assess that this man is openly saying “I know your secrets and everything about you. It’s why I am picking you.” This is a concerning statement for a citizen who may not have any skeletons in their closet, but doubly concerning for Angelo, as he is, himself, a hypocrite in his puritanical espousings. Angelo makes a feeble attempt at dissuading the Duke stating “Now, good my lord,/Let there be some more test made of my mettle/Before so noble and so great a figure/Be stamped upon it” (1.1.48-51).
The Duke is aware of what Angelo will say before he even says it which says a lot for the Duke’s stalking and profiling. We see this with his immediate retort of “No more evasion./We have with a leavened and preparèd choice/Proceeded to you; Therefore, take your honors” (1.1.50-52). This is another keen example of the Duke’s stage management. With very little effort he shuts down any further protests on the part of Angelo. He also affirms again that he is certain of his choice but decrees this in a manner that is a little less terrifyingly Orwellian. There is still a concern here though as we are given no indication that the Duke and Angelo have ever met or spoken prior to this event. This is further enforced by the fact that Angelo does not give further complaint. He is still starstruck in encountering the Duke.
This does not end with merely Angelo being spied upon by any means. The Duke talks with Friar Thomas about the state and asks “Therefore I prithee/Supply me with the habit, and instruct me/How I may formally in person bear/Like a true friar. More reasons for this action/At our more leisure shall I render you”(1.3.45-49). The key thing to note in this exchange is not what is said, but what isn’t said. By that I mean to highlight that Friar Thomas does not demand an explanation nor give any response to this request at all. In fact, the Duke simply brushes off the opportunity for such information by saying “I’ll tell you later”. One would think there would be at least some kind of protestation on the part of Friar Thomas unless he has heard this request made before. We know that the Duke has been spying on multiple individuals which indicates that this is by no means the first time that the Duke has donned a disguise. We can also presume that through his familiarity with Friar Thomas and the lack of any response or stage direction for a non-verbal reaction that this disguise is far from the first furnished by the religious establishment of the state.
The Duke uses this alternate identity to spy on the people of Vienna and uses the knowledge he has accrued to handle business as the Duke. This occurs in multiple hero stories as well as police dramas with the ‘going undercover’ trope. However, in most of these modern cases the protagonist is either disguising themselves as or adopting the identity of a criminal, a homeless person, or some other ‘lower class’ individual rather than impersonating a figure of religious authority. Within his guise as a friar we are told that the Duke has other specific targets he has been interacting with. We are told by Mariana that she has had this ‘Friar Lodowick’ come and visit her before. “Here comes a man of comfort whose advice/Hath often stilled my brawling discontent.” (4.1.8-9). The Duke has been spying on this woman as part of his plans for Angelo, in short, looking into every indiscretion and preparing to weaponize them at a moment’s notice. We can look at this relationship a little further and question whether Mariana’s desire to still marry Angelo is her own at all or if it is instead something that has been subtly nurtured as a concept by ‘Friar Lodowick’ until she is convinced that it is, in fact, her own idea.
While we are questioning relationships involving the Duke, one has to question what the Duke has over Friar Thomas in order for him to be ok with this kind of behavior? Or does Friar Thomas benefit from these tactics in some way? Is the Duke supplying him with information in exchange? We can’t say with any certainty from the information available in the text, but something is assuredly going on here beyond mere friendship. This strange enabling relationship is also mirrored in the modern hero mythologies as there is generally a sidekick or confidant who is aware of the alter-ego and either helps maintain the secrecy of it or otherwise aides the hero.
In this regard we must also consider Escalus, who is implied to be trustworthy by the Duke. He is given the orders to give to Angelo. The Duke refers to Escalus as “Old Escalus,/Though first in question, is thy secondary”(1.1.45-47) when he gives Angelo his commission. The Duke also appears in front of Escalus as ‘Friar Lodowick’ and Escalus does not even bat an eye at this encounter. We also see at the end that Escalus and Friar Thomas are the only two that go unpunished. This is strange to say the least, unless of course Escalus is in on the plot.
The Duke manufactures rumors to help further his goals. Interestingly enough the modern comic book hero does this as well. Street-level superheroes, Batman, Daredevil, etc. utilize urban legend and rumor about what they are and what they do to those caught by them to enhance their efficacy. We see this when criminals panic in the presence of the hero or are befuddled by the weaponry or evasive techniques, tactics, etc. With the Duke we see him utilize this tactic. The streets buzz with a rumor that “the Duke with the other dukes come not to composition with the king of Hungary, why then all the dukes fall upon the King.” (1.2.1-3). They believe he is off fighting somewhere else, when he is fighting a war of information on their very streets and beneath their noses. No one investigates this rumor further as a new crisis arises nearly immediately.
Another tactic that the modern hero employs is obfuscating their identity by utilizing proxies or having their confidant vouch for them when those outside of the secret begin to have suspicions regarding the hero’s secret identity. In comic books this has been done with having other people impersonate the hero so that both the public persona and alter-ego can be seen in the same place at the same time. Within the play we see a scaled back version of this with Friar Peter vouching for Friar Lodowick before Angelo. “I know him for a man divine and holy” (5.1.149). The Duke puts on this dramatic performance in order to throw those around him off his trail.
Only villains that frequently encounter these dramatic street-level heroes are mildly immunized to their dramatic behaviors. Cases in point within Measure for Measure are Friar Thomas, Escalus, and Lucio. We’ve covered Friar Thomas’ and Escalus’ roles within the Duke’s sprawling espionage/war on his own city. Lucio is the closest to figuring out the secret identity of ‘Friar Lodowick’ except sadly he isn’t fully aware of that. To specify, Lucio feels compelled to speak out against the Duke particularly in the presence of ‘Friar Lodowick’ so much so that it implies a sort of subconscious association between ‘Friar Lodowick’ and ‘The Duke’ in Lucio’s mind. And unfortunately for Lucio, this realization stays subconscious until it is far too late. Lucio accelerates the Duke’s plan like a can of gasoline dumped carelessly over slowly smoldering coals, all while digging himself a slightly deeper hole when he removes the Duke’s hood. “Show your sheep-biting face, and be hanged an hour. Will’t not off?” (5.1.356-357). In these dooming words, Lucio admits that he suspects there is something more to this Friar but is immediately cowed by the Duke’s wrath.
This sudden unmasking forces the Duke to make the move to his endgame prematurely. He doesn’t have any avenues toward plausible deniability or obfuscation at this point. He can’t say he was forced to dress as Friar Lodowick, or any of the other common excuses that appear in modern hero stories. Lucio is apparently able to readily identify the Duke, a feat that many other citizens are not capable of as mentioned early on in the play by the Duke while discussing with Friar Thomas. “My holy sir, none better knows than you/How I have ever loved the life removed,/And held in idle price to haunt assemblies” (1.3.8-10). The Duke has purposely kept himself out of the public eye to help make his disguise more effective.
It also forces the Duke to start tying off loose ends, threatening death and marriage to as many as he can in order to prevent his secret from being known by any more people. If Lucio had been more cautious with his actions, a little more paranoid, he might have survived. But instead Lucio functions as a warning to those who are to survive knowing his secret. The Duke has zero apprehensions about the punishments he is handing out. He is revealing his hand as a dictator, and what’s worse is that the Duke has even more secrets. “So, bring us to our palace, where we’ll show/What’s yet behind [that’s] meet you all should know” (5.1.541-542). The Duke intends to show these secrets to continue to assert his control over these scant survivors of what was apparently only one of his machinations. This can also be read as an allusion to a sequel or continuation of the Duke’s capers, a clear ‘To be continued’. This is what most heroic/serialised media strive to achieve. A captive audience who have bought into the conceits and premise and are compelled to continue engaging with the material, literally in the case of the ending of Measure for Measure.