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Livery, liberty, and the original staging of «Measure for Measure»

Par Andrew Gurr : Professor - University of Reading
Publié par Clifford Armion le 17/02/2013

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But pause a moment before we conclude this examination of the play with such a contrived harmony, which is hardly the mode most critics favour. I have spoken about it entirely on the basis of what Shakespeare designed and expected from its first staging. The unstated premise behind this is that Shakespeare was a seer who knew better than anyone how his designs should be executed. Today we live in a different world, and we have different views. Many people today prefer Isabella to reject the Duke’s offer.

1. Shakespeare and the Poor Clares

We know that Shakespeare lived in Bishopsgate through his first years in London, in the parish of St. Helens. Located just to the north of the Tower, he is on record as paying his dues in this parish. Not far from St. Helen’s was St. Botolph’s in Aldgate, another local church where Shakespeare had neighbourly connections. Not far from there, slightly to the east and north of the Tower, in the parish of St. Aldgates Without (meaning outside the city walls) there had once been the greatest of the three English Franciscan nunneries, known as the Minories, the London nunnery of the Order usually called the Poor Clares. This site, though no longer a nunnery, was still there when Shakespeare came to live nearby in 1590 or so.

It was called the Minories because the Clares were called Minoresses, since they were a minor order of Franciscan nuns. After Henry VIII had the monasteries dissolved in the 1530s, the Minories had been closed as a nunnery, in fact since 1539, for nearly fifty years by the time Shakespeare arrived in London. But memories and even some personnel of the Minories were still known there. Twelve of the Poor Clares were living in the parish twenty-five years after the closure, and three of them were still there in 1580, as beneficiaries of the parish’s provision for the poor. Their continued presence in the area was one of two likely reasons why Shakespeare became familiar with the Order of Saint Clare. It was the ‘Poor Clares’, known as that because they were an order devoted to extreme poverty, that Isabella hopes to join at the outset of Measure for Measure.

But that is not the only source for Shakespeare’s information about the “pious votarists of St. Clare, the Minoresses. He must have had another, and probably a far more direct form of contact with the Poor Clares than merely the gossip of the neighbourhood where he first lived in London. He must also have had access to an old document which was on at least one man’s hands roughly at the time when he began to write the play. In 1604, just after Measure for Measure was written, Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral, Earl of Nottingham, became one of the group of major dignitaries who were donating books and papers to the new library at Oxford, the now-great Bodleian Library. In all, Howard gave its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, 34 printed books, and 17 manuscripts. One of the manuscripts he donated to the Bodleian had been acquired by him, we do not know how, from the Minories.

It was a notable document, a fifteenth-century manuscript, a transcript of a special version of the rules for the Order of St. Clare. Originally composed by Isabella of Este in Ferrara, it was even more rigorous in its requirements for the nuns than St. Clare’s own original orders. Its title was the “Isabella Rule.” For that reason if no other, Isabella was a thoroughly apt name for Shakespeare to choose for his heroine. In fact the choice of name for Shakespeare’s heroine confirms that somehow he had got hold of the manuscript while he was working on the play.

The “Isabella Rule” manuscript, still available to be read in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, showed above all how rigorous the Order was. That section of it relating to possible relations with men is quoted by the nun Francisca to the would-be novice Isabella when we first meet her in the fourth scene of the play. 

This is worth emphasizing, because it tells us quite a lot about what Shakespeare sets out for us in the first Act of the play. Some of what we are told then has been widely misread by students and directors of the play, a mistake that also features as an uncertainty amongst some of the characters.

2. What livery did the leading characters wear?

The chief feature in the opening Act of the play is two figures, each of whom plans, for utterly opposed reasons, to wear the ascetic garb of a monk or nun. On the one hand is the Duke of Vienna and of dark corners, preparing to disguise himself in the gown and large hood of a Franciscan monk to spy on his own lords. He thus forms an equivalent and yet an opposite to the lady Isabella. She is first shown in the play’s fourth scene hoping to sequester herself as a novice in the nunnery of the Poor Clares, the Franciscan Order of the Minorites, the “pious votarists of Saint Clare,” as she so breathlessly calls them when she arrives at the nunnery. The nun she asks to tell her about the Order is called Francisca, an apt name for a Poor Clare as a member of the Franciscans. Among the chief elements of the Isabella Order were all those rigorous and exclusive anti-male rules that the nun Francisca cites to Isabella at her interview, when she is applying to make herself one of their novices. This is where Isabella, like her namesake, declares that she wants an even more rigorous set of rules than those that Francisca has recited so comically to her.

This all makes it very hard to believe that Shakespeare was not quite familiar with the “Isabella Rule” manuscript that the Lord Admiral, Charles Howard, hand over to the Bodleian Library in 1604. It must have been with Howard’s support that he chose to consult and to quote it in his play. Howard was the patron of the other company of the former duopoly, the Admiral’s Men, one of the two companies that Howard and his father-in-law, Henry Carey, the Lord Chamberlain, had gifted unrivalled access to in the London of 1594, when their two companies were licensed to use London’s only two authorized playhouses, one to the north and one to the south of the city. Howard undoubtedly knew a lot about Shakespeare, and we must assume that he thought his copy of the Isabella Order was worth showing to the poet before it vanished into the dark corners of the Bodleian Library. The chance to read the “Isabella Rule” manuscript must have become Shakespeare’s second resource when he was framing his new play during the long closure of the theatres for plague in 1603 or early 1604.

The first Act tells us unequivocally that Isabella wishes to do truly what the Duke plans to do deceitfully, to accept the dress of a nun and become a true ascetic, in total withdrawal from society. Far too many critics and directors of the play assume that she does become a nun, and so they have her throughout the play dressed as a novice of the Order of Saint Clare. This, I believe, is wrong. The Isabella Rule made it quite explicit that even the novices, when they first entered the Order had to live on probation through their first year, in order to give them enough time to see if the rigours of being a Minorite were not indeed too strict for them. But Isabella does not have time even to become a probationer.

The lecherous Lucio, of all people, is the one who draws her back, so that he can get her to help rescue her brother from the charge of excess lechery in making Isabella’s cousin Juliet pregnant. In context, that means that she has to turn back from her application to join the Poor Clares, and instead for what no doubt she hopes will be a short time she has to return to the realities of Viennese life. In the circumstances, she has neither occasion nor time to convert the urban ladies’ costume she is wearing when she goes to the nunnery into the drabness of a probationary nun, still less into the full nun’s garb that Francisca herself is wearing. So she must continue to wear the clothing that she has on when she first approaches the nunnery. She could not, therefore, have already been wearing the garb of a Poor Clare, even in anticipation of her being allowed to join the Order.

3. The lady Isabella

So how would Isabella have been dressed when we first meet her on stage? Here are some fifteenth-century pictures of the Poor Clares.

Illustration 1. Members of the Order of St. Clare, a Franciscan body dedicated to extreme poverty. Note the large black face-concealing hoods they wear, very like the large hoods worn by the Franciscan friars, such as the Duke comes to wear in the play.
gurr2_1361192888685-jpgIllustration 2. A lay sister of the Order, a novice of the hair-shirted kind that Isabella aspires to become. She wears just a dull grey gown.

Neither of these pictures tells us much directly about the Order, except that they wore drab or at least plain grey or brown clothes, with a dark hood not unlike the large, head-concealing hood that the Friar gives to the Duke, and which in the finale Lucio pulls back to startling effect (for him).

The one thing we can be sure of is that Isabella was not dressed like either of these pictures of Poor Clares. She was dressed as a gentlewoman, a lady. She was certainly not dressed as a Benedictine nun in pure white, as Holman Hunt shows her in his famous portrait of Isabella with her brother Claudio. 


Illustration 3.  Holman Hunt’s classic nineteenth-century vision of Isabella as a nun, dressed in virtuous white. White was worn by the Benedictines, not the Franciscans. This is only one of an endless series of misreadings of Shakespeare’s scheme when he designed the play.

My view, as I have said, is that at least in her first appearance in the play, she was not dressed as a nun at all, but as a lady of Vienna. We meet her at the nunnery asking for admission as a novice, but she does not get it, because Lucio intervenes. Her colourful dress is in deliberately complete contrast to that of the nun Francisca. If she is only now seeking admission, and asking the nun Francisca about the rules of the Order, she cannot possibly be already wearing the gown and hood of a novice nun. In fact, when Lucio calls from outside the nunnery, Francisca has to ask Isabella to speak to him, precisely because she has not yet become confined by the rules of the Order. “You are yet unsworn,” as she says. “When you have vowed, you must not speak with men / But in the presence of the prioress; / Then if you speak you must not show your face, / Or if you show your face you must not speak.” She is cannot already be wearing a Poor Clare’s gown. So what sort of clothes would she have worn?

Here is another adjustment we must make in our revisions to the stock ideas about the play. It is all too easily assumed that the prime figures in the play protagonist and antagonist, are not the Duke and Isabella but Angelo and Isabella. This is plainly wrong. Angelo is the Duke’s cover, his deputy, and his victim. The play’s truly central pair are Isabella and the Duke. That is made evident in the first act when both, for wholly different reasons, express the desire to change their noble dress for the far more humble garb of a monk and a nun. The Duke does take on the disguise of a monk’s gown and hood. My question is whether Isabella does too.

As a necessary aside here, we might note the associated confusion among some characters in the play over her status. When she first arrives to plead to Angelo for her brother’s life the Provost who introduces her calls her a “sister.” He does so, however, in a way that emphasizes her role as her brother’s sibling, not as a new nun. The servant says “Here is the sister of the man condemned.” Angelo asks “Hath he a sister?” and the Provost answers, calling her “a very virtuous maid, / And to be shortly of a sisterhood, / If not already.” That poses the possibility either that she will demonstrate her new identity as a nun when she confronts Antonio by putting on a novice’s gown rather like Francisca’s in Act 1, or that she will show she is not yet enrolled in the Poor Clares by wearing the same lady’s gown that she must have worn in her first appearance at the doors of the nunnery. This is the key question for how you conceive of her formal and structural relationship to the Duke in the play. Is she in disguise like Vincentio, or is she, unlike him, honestly her true self?

4. One word as evidence

At their second interview, in Act 2 Scene 4, Angelo makes one gesture that has massive significance in answer to the question of how Isabella was dressed when she is interviewed by Angelo. In answer to her claim that she is ignorant of what he is trying to tell her, Angelo declares to Isabella

Thus wisdom wishes to appear most bright
When it doth tax itself, as these black masks
Proclaim an enshield beauty ten times louder
Than beauty could, displayed.

This is a simile that depends on what she is wearing when she arrives to plead with Angelo. It prompts two questions. First, we must ask ourselves what was Isabella’s “destined livery” as it is called here in Act 2, the second time she interviews Angelo. The other is, where exactly was her version of “these black masks” that Angelo indicates in his words to her at that interview.

Illustration 4. A drawing of a lady wearing a mask.

Dudley Carleton, in a letter to John Chamberlain dated 4 July 1603, about Queen Anne’s arrival in Windsor after riding down from Scotland, wrote that “she hath of herself a comely personage and an extraordinarily good grace in her fashion, but for her favour she hath done it some wrong, for in all this journey she hath worn no mask.” This attempt to make herself fully visible meant that, even as early as April, she had became rather sun-burned.

Women wore masks, especially out of doors, to conceal their faces first of all from the sun, since beauty was white, and to become brown meant to be countrified. They also wore them at playhouses like the Blackfriars. In Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady, a comedy of 1609 or 1613, a young gentleman called Welford appears on stage disguised as a woman. The stage direction (Act 5 scene 2) has “Enter . . . Welford in womans apparrell.” As he enters the scornful lady’s sister declares dismissively that he is a woman “most ill-favoured, . . . with her Masque on.” This is the same kind of comment that the young scoundrel Nim, in the anonymous Life of a Satyricall Puppy Called Nim, applies to a woman in the audience at Blackfriars who has been eyeing him as he sits on the stage to watch the play. Normally, ladies when out of doors would wear masks of black velvet (evidently even indoor theatre audiences felt they were in effect out of doors too). the object of wearing such facial coverage was, at least ostensibly, to protect their complexions from the sun, to avoid looking like a woman of the countryside. You normally took them off when indoors, as Isabella should when she meets Angelo.

So, when, when she goes to meet Angelo, she must have been wearing not only the magnificent attire of a court lady, but the face-mask that ladies routinely wore to preserve their complexion. She would take it off, but hold it in her hand ready to put it back on when she goes back outdoors again. That is the reason for Angelo’s dismissal of “THESE black masks” that enshield the beauty of her face. When she had to speak to Angelo, she would have taken her mask off, as does the lady in the audience at the Blackfriars in Nim’s account, when she turns to address an acquaintance sitting near her in the audience. Nim says “a great desire I had to see her face: which she discovered, by unmasquing it to take her leave of a Gentleman.” That was a shock to him, because she turns out to be hideously ugly. It does, of course, indicate the usual courtesy at the time of ladies when they wore their masks. You took yours off when you spoke to someone. Isabella would done that, then held it in her hand, and it was to it this devicethat Angelo gestures when he speaks so dismissively of “these black masks.”

Black face-masks were a routine feature of a lady’s wear when she was out of doors. It went with expensive clothing, as the mark of grandeur, and yet it was supposed to show her natural modesty.that would be Isabella’s honest form of dress in public. So we have to think of Isabella appearing not as a would-be nun, but as a grand lady, dressed in all the splendour that rich and colourful gowns gave to their wearers in those days. This was the grandeur that at the outset of the play she seeks to discard, in favour of the humble and abrasive hair shirt of a Poor Clare. In the final scene of the play, so full of disguises and of unmasking, it is Mariana who wears the lady’s black mask, until her new husband Angelo asks her to take it off.

5. Liberty to disguise

The Duke, adopting the gown and the large concealing hood that were characteristic of the Franciscans, is, unlike Isabella, pretending to be what he is not, as Lucio eventually discovers, to his own dismay. Angelo, the Duke’s deputy, wears his judicial robes, but is not judicious. Isabella, as a would-be novice of the Poor Clares, is always wearing the kind of dress that she thinks does not suit her, the gorgeous attire of a lady. Mariana wears the same kind of dress, with the black mask, that Isabella wears in her two first interviews with Angelo. In the dark with Angelo, Mariana pretends to be Isabella. All these representations of the public self are disguises of one sort or another.

Throughout the long final scene in the play, so full of its unexpected revelations, it is the figure of Isabella that is the key. The revelations in the finale are all of them designedly farcical, capable of being precisely anticipated by any knowing audience. They all entail removal of the various disguises. The greatest revelation is the first, the Duke’s loss of his disguise when Lucio hauls off his monk’s hood. Then we have the three final tests for the Duke’s opposite, Isabella herself. They are major tests of what sort of person she is. First, she has to kneel to beg for justice against Angelo, a fruitless plea that becomes potent only when the Duke does his own undisguising. Then, alongside Mariana, Isabella is impelled by her to kneel and plead for mercy for her own persecutor, a complete reversal of her former plea, to save Angelo’s life for Mariana. Finally, when the Duke offers her marriage, she is left with the choice of renouncing her former desire to become a Poor Clare. All three of these revelations arrive, directly or indirectly, from the removal of disguise.

6. Licence constrains liberty

What is left to conclude the play is what frame of mind Isabella has after her share of the revelations. By the end she has had her own revelation, of course, the discovery that her brother is not dead after all. Many directors have counted that as quite enough to stun her and leave her silent in response to both of the Duke’s two wonderfully fumbled attempts to offer her his hand in marriage.

That has driven directors of the play on stage in two opposing directions. One has been to make her gladly receive his hand in marriage, the other to remain silent, proudly renouncing him and his maladroit offer. The latter is easily made if, as so many versions of the play have done, she is kept in her would-be nun’s outfit throughout the play.

Since we have been considering all through how the play might have been staged originally, at the Globe, let us consider what Shakespeare himself might have expected to happen in the conclusion. Most of that lengthy final scene can be staged in a wide variety of ways. Most of the more recent versions have been done in ways quite ignorant of what the original staging would have given us. This does not close with the Duke’s double proposal of marriage to Isabella. The chief issue is what happens after the Duke’s second dithering proposal of marriage. Quite remarkably, Isabella has no words to say -- that is one of what Philip McGuire has called Shakespeare’s potent “open silences” -- so she has to make the vital choice mutely. The text gives her and us no help at all here, whether she is to tacitly accept his proposal by taking his hand, and then exit hand-in-hand with the Duke, or whether she should flounce off alone, as so many recent productions have made her do.

That choice must depend, certainly if you are trying to reconstruct what you think Shakespeare expected when he wrote the play, on how they move when they make their final departures from the stage. The stage directions in the Folio text give us no help at all over that. It does not even have an ‘Exit’ sign as they all go offstage. There are just the Duke’s last words, the bland order: “So bring us to our palace, where we’ll show / What’s yet behind, that’s meet you all should know.” A standard rhyming couplet for the conclusion, this is utterly unhelpful. What does suggest is a general exit for everyone, two by two, through the tiring-house doors to the ducal palace, the main location for both hospitality and justice. But which of the three doors in the 1604 Globe’s frons scenae should they go through?

7. The choreography of liberty

This is where Robert Weimann’s celebrated theory of the stage area as containing two principal locations, the locus and the platea, becomes in potential a highly important idea. Weimann reckoned that the central opening of the three stage doors was where authority always emerged from, with the two smaller doors on its flanks by contrast the places whence all the competing characters emerged. They are the contestants in the disputes which give the play the disputes of its story. At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, for instance, in Weimann’s visualization, the two groups of the Montagu and Capulet servants would each enter through one of the two opposing doors, and then confront one another in centre stage. such brawlers belonged in the platea, or common street side of the stage’s structure. Eventually the Duke of Verona would enter from the central opening, the authority position, to set them apart from one another, and to restore order in his town. At the end of the tragedy, the procession of mourners, led by the Duke, and, including the surviving Montagus and Capulets, would all exit harmoniously, side by side and perhaps hand in hand through the central opening. That was the routine form of departure for all plays, especially the comedies like Measure for Measure that are expected to close in mutual harmony.

By this theory, all comedies, having shown that the competing opposites can reconcile their differences, would similarly have the competitors, who throughout the action had entered through the opposed doorways, once they have reconciled their differences, all exit together through the central opening. Titania and Oberon, who first appear through opposite doors to greet each other as enemies (“Ill met by moonlight”), would go out at the end hand in hand to signal their revived harmony. Only one of Shakespeare’s comedies avoids this act of terminal harmony, because it is the only play where love and marriage do not conclude the play: Love’s Labours Lost. In that play the lovers are told explicitly to go out by the opposing doors that they had always come in by. “You that way, we this way.”

So you can easily see, not just by means of this theory about the standard choreography of Elizabethan staging, that an early audience would expect Isabella to take the Duke’s hand, and that the two of them would then be the first of the four pairs of lovers, all to be married, who go off through the central opening. As the lead couple, the most devout and sexless of the four pairs, the Duke and Isabella would go out first. They would be followed by Angelo his deputy with Mariana, less morally upright than the first pair, with Mariana’s love affirmed by her plea to have Angelo’s life saved. they are the only pair to have actually gone through a marriage ceremony, during the finale itself. Behind these first two pairs goes Claudio with pregnant Juliet, his life saved by the Duke’s mercy from Vienna’s over-rigid laws. And finally Lucio makes the fourth to be married, escorted either by the fiogure of justice, the Provost who brought Claudio in, or perhaps, if any woman who could claim he had fathered her child was there on stage, he might go off hand in reluctant hand with her as his designated wife, to fulfill the Duke’s order that he should marry the mother of his child. The four pairs up make the play’s gamut in the range from total purity to complete sexual licence. Such a range is covered in the play by that benign and legal (if implausible) convenience, marriage.

The absence of any stage direction for this collective exit might have been an accidental omission by Ralph Crane the transcriber, though that seems unlikely. Far more likely is that it was meant to be a conventional comic closure, a general and celebratory exit by all in procession, pair after pair, each pair depicting a different level unified by marriage in the wide range between purity and sex. Such a conclusion suits, if nothing else, the clothing worn by the leading pair. The now undisguised Duke, his cloak as a Franciscan monk discarded, would be dressed in a style matching that of the lady Isabella, still dressed as a great lady, her black mask now discarded like the Duke’s monkish garb. A fitting pair, both dressed in the clothes of the noble families they both come from. The best conclusions to such comedies, like mine, I hope, are the harmonious ones.

8. What is a conclusion?

But pause a moment before we conclude this examination of the play with such a contrived harmony, which is hardly the mode most critics favour. I have spoken about it entirely on the basis of what Shakespeare designed and expected from its first staging. The unstated premise behind this is that Shakespeare was a seer who knew better than anyone how his designs should be executed. Today we live in a different world, and we have different views. Many people today prefer Isabella to reject the Duke’s offer. That is a widespread modern view. So should we take he play as dated, belonging to an age that has long departed from its own values? Or do we take Shakespeare as the sage whose own views are superior to our own more modern re-readings? Indeed, we should ask whether our modern values really are superior to those of Shakespeare himself? That is perhaps the key question that lies in the heart of this play.


Cette ressource a été écrite à partir du texte de l'intervention d'Andrew Gurr lors de la journée d'étude "Measure for Measure in performance" organisée à l'Université de Caen Normandie le 18 janvier 2013.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Andrew Gurr, "Livery, liberty, and the original staging of «Measure for Measure»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2013. Consulté le 25/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/Shakespeare/livery-liberty-and-the-original-staging-of-measure-for-measure