A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Stealth of Our Most Mutual Entertainment


Claudio is Measure 4 Measure's average Joe, a man who in the relaxed spirit of the times was at least virtuous enough to avoid the whorehouse abandon described by Mistress Overdone, even if he failed out of a kind of laziness to marry his Julietta, who is now round with his child. Under Angelo's sudden strictures, this omission becomes a hanging offense, whose purpose was, to use Napoleon's famous phrase, pour encourager les autres.

Cla: "Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order."

By contract Claudio means that by common law contract, he and Julietta should be considered married. In Shakespeare's England this situation arose if the couple affirmed their union before witnesses – basically as a private civil ceremony, not recognized by the church. Also "fast" likely meant "bound to me as" my wife, and denunciation meant they lacked only a public announcement to make it legal. Without such an announcement, their ceremony would not be recognized either by the state or the church. Hence Claudio's arrest. Basically, Shakespeare has concocted the most innocent-sounding minor lapse of legal formality he can come up with, affecting two lovers who are otherwise faithful and virtuous.

It's impossible to read this today without the issue of gay marriage arising in one's head. Shakespeare, in advocating fairness over justice, seems to be siding with true love over legal formality. Of course, his concept of true love includes constancy, or fidelity, as the sonnets repeatedly attest. One can only wonder how gay marriage might be viewed if those seeking it – especially gay men – honestly avowed to maintain fidelity in their marriages, and lived up to that vow with something close to the success of married heterosexuals; that is, at least successful enough to make society as a whole sexually restrained and functional.

The purpose of marriage, after all, is to capture male lust in order to render society stable. And Shakespeare is saying that Claudio's lust has in fact been properly captured, and even directed toward its ultimate goal. Claudio goes on:

Cla: ".......This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

More excuses, this time he explains that they didn't complete the marriage for lack of a dowry. Presumably Claudio's future baby momma Julietta was something like an orphan, and so her dowry was being held by relatives ("friends"). Claudio is saying that her folks didn't approve of the union, and that he and Julietta were trying to win them over ("Till time had made them for us."). But then of course she got pregnant, and started showing ("character too gross is writ").

Then Angelo took the reins from the Duke, learned of Claudio's situation, and condemned him to death, our encourager les autres – to encourage virtue in all others.

More later…

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