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Home :: Archive :: 1993 :: November ::
*Measure* in History
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 764. Thursday, 11 November 1993.
 
From:           Al Cacicedo <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 Nov 1993 0:14:34 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        *Measure* in history
 
The recent argument concerning *Measure for Measure* and its connection to
marriage practices in England during the early modern period parallels a series
of articles that runs from from Ernest Schanzer in "The Marriage-Contracts in
*Measure for Measure* (*ShS* 13 (1960): 81-89, who finds an absolute continuity
between the play and social custom, to Margaret Scott in "'Our City's
Institutions':  Some Further Reflections on the Marriage Contracts in *Measure
for Measure*" (*ELH* 49.4 (1982):  790-804, who argues that the law of the
play's Vienna "is fictional law, the like of which has never been enacted in
England, nor, so far as I know, in Vienna" (792) and therefore says nothing
about social expectations in early modern England.
 
As I see it, both of those perspectives are wrong.  Schanzer's argument is
wrong because indeed there never was such a law in England; Scott is wrong
because social custom and law are not equivalent things, so that the play (or
any play) can give voice to expectations, fears, tensions, etc. not actually
inscribed in law.  I think of Stanley Kubrick's *Dr. Strangelove* and the
doomsday bomb of that film--a complete "fiction," of course, but also a
completely accurate representation of the tensions and anxieties of the Cold
War.  In any case, Shakespeare certainly seems to consider, in one play or
another, almost (and that modifier is there as a hedge against my ignorance)
all the possible ways of becoming married available in early modern England,
from marriage by spousals such as Claudio says he has contracted with Juliet,
to clandestine marriage such as Romeo and Juliet contract, to
priest-officiated, church-celebrated marriage such as that between Petruchio
and Katherina--and then there are the problematic marriages, like Gertrude's to
Claudio or (potentially) Cleopatra's to Antony.  Much recent work has shown the
ways in which marriage practices address issues of gender formation, and I
think Shakespeare's plays are documents in which such formation is both
affirmed and questioned.
 
I simply cannot believe that one can consider those marriages with no reference
to the practices and expectations of early modern England. When Ann Cox
recently wrote that "Gertrude's act of marrying Claudius is not just bad
judgement in choosing an evil man or being disloyal to her husband's memory,
she is, in the social mores of the 17th century, committing incest. This is the
reason she is so reviled" (4.0730), I imagine no one said that the mores of the
17th century are irrelevant to understanding *Hamlet*.  Why then is it an
irrelevancy in regards *Measure* to understand the way in which marriage
practices inscribe gender expectations in the 17th century?
 
An inquiring mind wants to know,
Al Cacicedo (
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Albright College
 

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