Elliot Spitzer and the Elucidation of Shakespeare

When it's not called one of his "dark comedies," Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is most often labeled his first "problem play": Coleridge called it "the most painful -- say rather the only painful" play of Shakespeare's (why Titus Andronicus didn't merit inclusion makes one wonder about Coleridge's tolerance for multiple amputations). The atmosphere and setting of Measure for Measure are sordid and cynical -- the meeting of prison, brothel, convent and courtroom.

But a chief reason it's a problem play is its two difficult-to-explain, difficult-to-accept main characters: Angelo, the puritanical deputy of Duke Vincentio (his "blood / is very snow-broth"), who is put in charge of the city while the duke is away. And Isabella, who has just entered a nunnery. Her brother, Claudio, is arrested for getting his girlfriend pregnant, and under Angelo's new anti-sex regime, he is condemned to die. He asks Isabella to beg for his life.

Angelo has mercilessly clamped down on Vienna's criminals with "most biting laws," ordering the brothels to be pulled down. Yet when he hears Isabella's impassioned defense of Claudio, he is overwhelmed by lust for her. He demands she submit to his desires or her brother will be executed. Why Isabella refuses to comply has inspired a sizable hillock of explications, to which book/daddy will not add.

But Angelo is also seen by many as a somewhat improbable figure: A hard-hearted moralist, he'll suddenly risk his career, his entire reformation of Vienna, for a bit of fluff, a quick tumble in the sheets? Or he's seen as too easy, too dismissable, a target. He's just another powerful hypocrite, another Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker.

I think you can see where this is headed -- to a certain disgraced New York governor. But Shakespeare's portrait is more nuanced than just "public moralist implodes over illicit sex."

David Brooks' Thursday column in the NYTimes makes the provocative case, based on his own observation of successful politicos and tycoons, that many hard-driving alpha males ("they treat their conversational partners the way the Nazis treated Poland") hit middle age and realize "that their grandeur is not enough and that they are lonely." Such men, Brooks argues credibly enough, have an almost limitless capacity for self-pity, even as they've spent their careers pushing away family and friends for the company of useful toadies.

Sooooo --

They seek to heal the hurt. Maybe they frequent prostitutes because transactional relationships are something they understand. But in other cases, they just act like complete idiots.

I don't know if you've seen a successful politician or business tycoon get drunk and make a pass at a woman. It's like watching a St. Bernard try to French kiss. It's all overbearing, slobbering, desperate wanting. There's no self-control, no dignity.

In short, Angelo. In the past week, many (mostly female) columnists and talk-show hosts have argued angrily whether Spitzer's sexual deceit and self-destruction are typical of married men. In fact, no -- the percentage of American men hiring prostitutes has actually declined steeply since the '50s, according to a 1994 survey by Edward O. Laumann. But then Bill Clinton and Senators Vitter and Craig get thrown in, muddying the argument but upping the anger. (For what it's worth, Clinton was a seducer, Craig seems to be a closet case. Vitter is the figure most similar to Spitzer/Angelo, yet Vitter, although a "family values" conservative, hardly had Spitzer's fearful reputation as a vengeful enforcer of the law).

Given this apparent wave of sexual indiscretions, Mr. Brooks, typical of head-shaking pundits, sees these top dog types as a broad, sad, American social problem: "Every society produces its own distinct brand of social misfits, I suppose, but our social structure seems to produce significant numbers" of the successful and emotionally stunted.

But it's not so localized once we see Angelo in this light. I suppose it's typical of book/daddy that he would see in the Spitzer demolition a literary insight and confirmation of Shakespeare's close observation of character and situation. It would seem plain that it's the right mix of inflexible public morality, power, personal failings and longings, plus the right opportunity (even the sordidness or illegality of the sex has its appeal, stolen candy being sweeter) -- all of this is what leads to an Angelo. Or a Spitzer.

A book/daddy thanks to Patrick Kelly for the original (borrowed, not stolen!) insight.

March 16, 2008 8:00 PM | | Comments (2)



In the enneagram personality typing device Angelo would be a #1. This also fits with the evangelical preachers who inveigh against prostitution and sexual license, and then are caught with their pants down, surprised by sin.

Privacy or secret conduct is, in a psychological way, not often addressed in terms of the meaning of the different 'persons' we are, that is how one presentation interlocks with another. Your discussion suggests that Angelo's puritanism is a way to suppress his guilt and fits with his inner sexual aggressiveness toward Isabella. I wonder if Shakespeare saw the 2 aspects of his character, Angelo's, personality, though ostensibly contradictory, as having an inner logic that makes them appropriate for each other. His title might imply that. How well he went into this would then be the measure of the play.


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