A Level Essay on Measure for Measure & The White Devil

November 24, 2019

The recurring themes prevalent in both William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and John Webster's "The White Devil", are of the immoral problems formed by corruption which are heightened through the dramatic use of authority and desire from the characters. Shakespeare's prominent themes throughout the play centre upon the justice sought by the characters, the punishment from the leading figures and lastly the balance of "mortality and mercy". Webster incorporates the tragedies and the "revenge theme" into the play in "The White Devil" which is traditional to the Senecan model as it employs similar devices such as revengeful justice and disguise.


A key dramatic theme presented in both plays is the usage of corruption; an illustration is the puritanical Angelo, appointed Duke in Vincentio's relinquishing of power. Angelo is left in charge of the town's issues; he enforces the old, strict laws and destroys the fate of Claudio and his marriage to the pregnant Julietta as an example to the rest of disordered Vienna. Kate Chedzgoy's depiction of Angelo is of his actions as 'the unsufferable abuse of a lewd Magistrate.' It is evident in the play that is how Shakespeare encourages the audience to view him, as a hypocritical and heartless individual who abandons his fiancée Mariana for being dowerless; he states that "great men do great good or great harm". Bertolt Brecht, who developed the theory of Verfremdungseffekten (alienation devices) states that the leading figure, in this case Angelo, should both alienate and seduce the audience. Shakespeare portrays Angelo in this way by first attracting the audience by implementing the swift hand of justice. This is demonstrated by his actions in dealing with Claudio when he states "Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall", which juxtaposes his deceitfully immoral nature, whilst ironically coaxing Isabella, repulsing the audience. His "giant's strength" demonstrates his ambition for greater power, it will lead to his dishonesty; he tells Isabella "Say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true" displaying how he can use his situation of authority to prevail over her virtue. Catherine Belsey describes how "power in practice was denied to women", the convention used in this era of powerless women is in the knowledge that they were played by adolescent boys. The audience would have expected nothing less as it was customary that females were inferior.


Corruption of power is dramatically conveyed in "The White Devil" similarly through Monticelso's exploitation with his ascension of status to Pope. Katherine Carey's view states that "the papacy fraught with corruption and abuse of absolute power" enables him to an abundance of authority at his disposal. Monticelso is quick to wield this power through Fransisco's use of his "black book" to hire Lodovico to commit revenge on his behalf against Brachiano. Comparable to Angelo, he is able to manipulate his position to deny the rumour of the attempted murder of Brachiano whilst secretly promoting the act "Bear him these thousand ducats.Tell him the Pope hath sent them". The apposition between acts and conventions aids the eradication of principles from the society in Vienna. Correspondingly, the characters misuse their powers to commit such atrocities and "ravish'd justice" to repudiate their actions with Monticelso condemning Vittoria to the "house of convertites". Furthermore, Angelo's denunciation of Claudio for his actions with Julietta is not only an unjust abuse of strength, but is in parallel to his actions with the novitiate, Isabella. By claiming himself as 'the state', he prevents Isabella from denying him "Then Isabel live chaste, and brother die", allowing the disguising of his corruption. Patsy Hall said how those "who aspire to high moral standards prove flawed" comparable to Angelo; just like the title of the book, the main theme for the characters is how they are all being tested and measured "Let there be some more test made of my metal". Nonetheless, Angelo failures this test, as his legislature of making laws is "as tainted" by the pleasures he can attain "as those who break them". For the critical judgements formulated of the characters in the play, the audience is encouraged by Shakespeare's method of displaying how Angelo's ambitious nature warps him which shows the concept of revenge as a grave mistake.


The conventions of the ambitious, vice-filled natures in Vienna in "Measure for Measure" and Padua in "The White Devil" are laws beset with Renaissance codes. They regard revenge as justice and honour as control; these are principal cultural ideologies. These are akin in Shakespeare's most notorious revenge plays "Hamlet" and his "Othello" where Jason Spitzer comments how "Revenge is an integral part of human nature; it shows the immorality of the subject". This symbolises how revenge is a notion exceedingly feasible in general values. Paralleled are the international politics greatly established in Jacobean England; in this epoch of James I, for whom the Duke is representing. At the end of the play, the Duke uses his power to mete out righteousness and humanity, symbolising James I's role in having supremacy of life and demise for his subjects. The Duke is comparable in controlling a permissive, diseased society. The Renaissance genre is related to the Senecan Model, which "The White Devil" features many qualities of the model including 'a ghost intent on vengeance' like Brachiano appearing to Flamineo. This corpse-strewn climax and the motive of ambition driving each character's actions can both be traced back to the Senecan model. In "The White Devil", John Webster also portrays the society of Rome and Padua as themselves, corrupt and power-grabbing. The court is described very satirically as a place where friends and alliances can be bought. The court could also be shown to be a microcosm for society. Count Lodovico, for example, is told to have 'Ruined the noblest earldom in just three years'. What Lodovico portrays is also described in "Measure for Measure". Vienna is shown to be a place filled with brothels.


In "The White Devil" and "Measure for Measure", the audience is shown the melodramatic results of the internal strife through the use of authority. It could be argued that the circumstances left in Vienna is due to the Duke's inability to keep control over society which leads to the power struggle in the city. In "The White Devil" the actions of the ever ambitious Flamineo and his corruption of morals leads to his killing his brother. Webster's elaborately complex network of diverse ideas displays the ambitious nature of the characters, resembling the servant Zanche and the power she wields by disloyally abandoning her love for Flamineo in favour of the 'Moor' who can give her more power. In "Measure for Measure", Shakespeare leaves Angelo to "enforce or qualify the laws" as to remind the audience that he holds absolute power. Angelo is swift in "plucking justice by the nose" to not only impose laws in Vienna but create "tyranny" by reinforcing lapse decrees. Shakespeare not only gives Angelo the desire for power, but the legitimacy to wield it. Conversely, both Shakespeare and Webster demonstrate that all characters are accountable with Vittoria being held under trial in "The White Devil" and with revenge being a tool for justice, drawing parallels with the Senecan model. In "Measure for Measure", Angelo is brought before Vincentio to pay for his sins.


Shakespeare's play is seen as a problem play as its vague and intricate quality means that it cannot be placed as either a tragedy or a comedy. The complications, such as saving Isabella's chastity through the "bed-trick", are as complex as human life which means the nature of the play is riddled with moral issues. Angelo is unaware of the trick but as he misaligns Isabella's interpretations and transforms her words into sexual gratifications "and strip myself to death as a bed". Angelo's hypocrisy for prosecuting people for actions he later then commits himself shows his double standards. Hitherto he is the individual to acquire the worst of it by being double-crossed, as a consummated relationship in Shakespeare time, conventionally meant the earlier engagement can come to be compulsory wedding oaths. Isabella's role in this trick constructs complications as this act can be interpreted as immoral and against her duty as a nun. She abandons the expectations of biblical figures in the Jacobean era for personal fulfilment. Isabella also poses the complication of female stereotypes. This represents the feminine struggle for power within Vienna with all women being in "socially ambivalent positions". Another qualm in the play is the role of the Duke whose transformation into the friar he attempts to conceal. Characters like Mariana place great trust with the Duke. However, unbeknownst to her, he secretly leads this double life, the question of morality is also raised when the Duke defends Angelo by branding Isabella a "food wretch" as she "know'st not what thou speakest".


After profound studies of both plays, it is clear that the consequences of power and ambition are prominent and dramatic themes. Shakespeare portrays Angelo and the Duke as deeply flawed individuals who seek to impose authority and influence via their own corruption. The critical views have reinforced these opinions by displaying society as an unjust and immoral dwelling, similar to conventional depictions of the Jacobean era. Webster's "The White Devil" follows a more Machiavellian approach, such as Monticelso and how he obtains the complete opposite beatitude behaviour needed to get into heaven, as justice is being influenced by individual revenge and desires rather than society's liberty.



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