Chastity as a Political Principle: An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

In John Alvis and Thomas G. West, eds., Shakespeare as Political Thinker, 2nd Edition (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2000).


The city of Vienna is in bad shape. It has been misruled, or allowed to go without being ruled, for no less than fourteen years. The nominal ruler is a philosopher. However good philosophic rule may be in theory, in practice it seems to be nearly the worst. This is confirmed by the Tempest no less than by Measure for Measure. Prosper’s negligent government of Milan, from which is is roughly expelled by his usurping brother, is as unprosperous as Vincentio’s has been. Vincentio loves the life removed and his study has been to know himself, instead of practicing “his judgment with the disposition of natures.” Similarly, Prospero, in Milan, was preoccupied with the liberal arts, instead of spying out the plots of malefactors (sometimes he almost forgets to do even on this island. And so it has come to pass in Vienna that “liberty plucks justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / goes all decorum.” But decorum is too decorous a word for what goes athwart. Lechery and fornication are rampant. In Scene II, which precedes the conversation between Friar Thomas and the Duke, we observe the young bucks of the city engaged in witty repartee and badinage concerning their venereal sports and diseases. Their humor is keen but their characters are dissolute. They are not the stuff of which public spirit and citizenship and compounded.

Shakespeare and Politics