Episode 28

From Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses Claudio’s speech from Measure for Measure, Act 3 Scene 1, by William Shakespeare.

Poet

William Shakespeare

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

From Measure for Measure, Act 3 Scene 1

by William Shakespeare

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling; ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.


Podcast transcript

This speech is from Act 3 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. It’s spoken by Claudio, a young man in the city of Vienna who has been condemned to death. He’s talking to his sister, Isabella, a devoutly Christian young woman who has just entered a convent. Isabella is visiting Claudio in prison, and she’s just told him that she has been propositioned with a disgraceful bargain, by Angelo, the deputy of the Duke of Milan. Angelo has told Isabella that he is prepared to release Claudio and spare his life – if Isabella will sleep with him.

Isabella is of course shocked and offended by this, and as a virtuous and chaste member of the convent, says she cannot possibly commit such a terrible sin, even to save her brother’s life. And when she tells Claudio about the offer, he’s at first just as shocked and angry as she is, and says he couldn’t live with the shame of having his life ransomed by his sister’s virginity.

But then of course, the full implications of the situation sink into him, and he starts to say to Isabella, ‘But on the other hand… maybe we shouldn’t be so hasty’. And the two of them argue, until at this point, Claudio’s fear of death breaks through and produces this amazing speech.

And I know what you’re thinking: the story sounds absurdly convoluted and contrived, but really, I don’t think we need to worry about that to appreciate this speech. I mean, the fear of death is such a universal feeling, and it’s expressed so powerfully here, that it’s very easy to for us to relate to what Claudio is saying. You could easily put this speech in a poetry anthology or even a podcast, and appreciate it as a poem in its own right.

And, specifically in relation to Claudio, throughout the play, he’s a pretty unremarkable character, and at no other point does he say anything remotely as eloquent or compelling as this. It doesn’t really feel like we’re hearing an individual character’s voice here. It’s more like he’s giving voice to a universal emotion. I mean, if you or I were in the position of being asked by someone close to us, ‘You know what, it’d be great if you could take one for the team and offer your life up as a sacrifice for the greater good, or a moral principle,’ I think we’d all come back with some something very like this speech.

In the context of Shakespeare’s work as a whole, this is a rare glimpse into the afterlife. You know, he’s typically far more interested in the here and now, this ‘worldly life’, as he puts it here. A few years earlier than Measure for Measure, Hamlet describes death as ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’, and talked about ‘the dread of something after death’, but he doesn’t say much about that ‘something’. Here Claudio is much more specific about his fears, and gives us this incredible description of the torments of the damned.

But we should remember that Shakespeare is depicting the fears of a living man. He’s not speculating himself, or describing the afterlife in great detail. It’s not Dante’s Inferno. Dante was the opposite of Shakespeare in this respect, he seems to have been mainly interested in ‘worldly life’ as a prelude to a transfigured life, either the new life, La Vita Nuova, granted by Romantic lovel or the life after death, in hell, purgatory or heaven, which he described in mind-boggling detail in the Divine Comedy.

There’s a great passage in T. S. Eliot’s essay on Dante, where he makes an extended comparison between Shakespeare and Dante and he says he’s not talking about who was the better poet because he ‘cannot admit the question’. But he says, if you try to imitate Dante, the worst that’s going to happen is that you’re going to be ‘pedestrian and flat’. But if you try to imitate Shakespeare, ‘you will make an utter fool of yourself’. And I think this speech demonstrates exactly what Eliot is talking about.

You know, Dante’s Inferno is horrible. But it’s also incredibly well organised. All the sinners are neatly categorised and filed away in different levels of hell, with appropriate punishments for the different types of sin. Dante’s descriptions are so detailed that editions of the Inferno routinely include maps of hell, with all the different levels and roads and bridges that the travellers take on their journey.

And similarly his figurative language, has an incredible clarity and precision to it. Seamus Heaney refers to Dante’s ‘head-clearing similes’, as if they acted like a kind of menthol lozenge for the mind. For example, in Canto XIII, Dante the pilgrim and his mentor Virgil are walking through a wood and Dantes is surprised to hear groans coming from the trees around him. He breaks off a twig from one of the trees, and the tree starts talking and explains that he was once a man. And Dante the poet brings this extraordinary scene to life with a simple everyday simile:

‘As from a green log that is burning at one of its ends, and from the other drips, and hisses with the air that is escaping, so from that broken splinter came out words and blood together.’
Inferno XIII, 40-44 (translated by Charles Eliot Norton)

Obviously this is a prose English translation, it doesn’t have the music and the magic of the original, but it’s still so vivid that I have absolutely no doubt Dante is drawing on a memory, of having watched a wood fire burning, and years later, he used it for his simile, his comparison.

This kind of writing is deceptively simple, because it’s extremely hard to do it as well as Dante. But it’s possible, I think, to imagine reading a bit of Dante like this, and naively think, ‘Well, maybe I could do something a bit like that’, and produce something competent but dull.

But I don’t think many of us would read this speech from Measure for Measure and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I could have a go at that’. I mean, imagine trying to map this! It’s like he’s taken the Inferno and put it in the blender.

You know, one moment we’ve got this image of ‘this sensible warm motion’, the living body, that becomes ‘a kneaded clod’, it’s decomposing and going back to the earth. But then suddenly in the same sentence we’ve got ‘and the delighted spirit’, in other words, the human spirit used to the delights of earthly life, is in being bathed in fiery floods. And just as we’re getting our heads around that, we find ourselves in ‘thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice’. And then a split second later, we’re ‘imprison’d in the viewless winds’, the invisible winds, and blown hither and thither about the ‘pendant world’, the world hanging in space. And then the final terrifying image is:

                                         to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling;

In other words, it’s literally our worst nightmare, when ‘lawless and incertain thought’, our thoughts run out of control, imagine the worst of the worst souls in hell, who are howling and screaming in pain, forever and ever.

So we’ve got this succession of images blended in or mashed up together in quick succession. If we think of an analogy with painting, Dante’s Inferno is a bit like one of those amazing paintings of hell by Hieronymous Bosch or Jan Breughel, where there are hundreds of figures being roasted or frozen or chopped in pieces or eaten alive by monsters, all depicted in excruciating detail. But Shakespeare’s technique is more like Goya or even Turner, slapping on the paint and swirling it around, it’s not as detailed and precise, and it could easily be a complete mess. But actually, when you stand back and you look at it, you see the scene, appearing with unmistakable vividness and motion and energy. And somehow it all hangs together.

Going back to Eliot’s statement, its easy to see how you or I we could make a complete fool of ourselves if we tried to do this. If we got the Shakespearean blender into our poetic kitchen, we’d probably we’d end up with the images splattered all over the walls. But for Shakespeare, it’s not a mess. The different elements of the speech seem to be pulling in all different directions, but it holds together, it’s like a hurricane that is incredibly destructive but has a structural integrity of its own.

And it sweeps us along with it, from being a clod of kneaded earth to being washed in floods of fire, to picking our way across the land of ice, and then being imprisoned, which sounds really solid, you think of stone and iron, but in the ‘viewless winds’, the invisible winds, which is a pretty weird image, you literally can’t visualise it, but somehow it works.

And if we look at this sequence of images through the eyes of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, then to them it would be obvious that he is working through the sequence of the four elements, earth fire, water and air, which were the basis of all existence, the stuff of the cosmos, and of human beings as much as the physical world, as described in a famous passage from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great:

Nature, that fram’d us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.

So the idea was that in every person, the four elements are mixed together. That’s what creates a human being. And they produce the four humours, which were the basis of Renaissance medicine and a kind of personality typing system. So air related to blood and produced the sanguine temperament; fire related to yellow bile and the choleric personality; earth was black bile and melancholy; and water was phlegm and the phlegmatic character.

And ideally, they’re supposed to be balanced and in harmony; quite often in the drama of the period, we hear descriptions of characters in terms of imbalance between the humours. ‘Well, you know, he’s he’s too phlegmatic. That’s his problem.’ Or ‘He’s too choleric’, or ‘She’s too melancholic’.

And to us, it just sounds like figurative language, but to them, it would be a self-evident truth about what humans were made of. So presumably for Shakespeare’s original audience, the horror of this speech would have been heightened by a sense that this was a human body and soul being ripped apart, reduced to its elements.

So after that catalogue of horrors, I think we can all relate to the end of the speech, when Claudio is clinging to life. On one level, he’s pleading to Isabella, but he’s also just kind of talking to himself, telling himself that however bad life is, however old you are, however much pain you’re in, however poor you are, even if you’re in prison, it’s infinitely preferable to the alternative:

The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

So Shakespeare takes us on this incredibly rapid and terrifying journey, it’s like a spiritual rollercoaster or ghost train, and by the end we’re all screaming and wanting to get off.

But what is powering the rollercoaster? That’s right. It’s our new friend, who we met last month: blank verse. The unrhymed iambic pentameter, the ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM that was the main verse form used in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

If your remember, we looked at a speech from Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. It was written about ten years before Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, when blank verse was at an earlier stage of its development. So it was a fairly orderly and regular metre.

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

So we can hear the regular rhythm ticking away steadily here. And we also encountered a few reversed feet, where instead of ti TUM, a line would kick of with TUM ti. Like this:

Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.

Hear that ‘Yeah I’? The strong stress kicks off the line with a burst of energy, then it relaxes back into regular iambic pentameter:

And then return to Helen for a kiss.

So the speech of Marlowe’s characters is really dominated by the metre, and there’s a bit of room for expressive variation, but not much. And there’s also a teeny bit of enjambment, where the syntax spills over from one line to another, but overall it’s really easy to hear where one line stops and the next one starts.

But by the time we get to Measure for Measure, in the middle period of Shakespeare’s career, he was a virtuoso at using blank blank verse as an incredibly flexible and vivid and powerful medium for expressing all kinds of emotions and states of mind and dramatic situations. And in Claudio’s speech, I think he does this in three main ways.

Firstly, he keeps the limbic pentameter moving forward. As we’ve just seen, Marlowe can use the initial reversed foot, also know as a trochee, very effectively to kickstart his lines. But if you’re going to kickstart then you have to stop first, and this stop-start motion prevents the verse from gathering too much momentum.

In Claudio’s speech, however, there is only one trochee and it’s right at the beginning:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

So the initial stress of ‘Ay, but’ kicks off the speech nicely, and it’s a useful way for Claudio to interrupt his sister Isabella, because they’re in the middle of an argument. But there are no trochees in the rest of the speech. In other words, there’s nothing to interrupt the forward motion at the start of every line. It’s as though Shakespeare has eased off the handbrake.

Secondly, Shakespeare varies the metre in other ways. And to me, the most important one is that he revs the engine by having two strong stresses next to each other. For example:

This sensible warm motion

So if you listen carefully, you can hear that the last two syllables of ‘sensible’ are very light, we hardly stress them at all, which means we land heavily on ‘warm motion’. So you end up with two unstressed or very lightly stressed syllables followed by two stressed syllables.

And later, right at the end of the at the climax of the rollercoaster ride we get:

Imagine howling; ’tis too horrible!

So it’s the same effect, right? We really hear the stresses on ‘too horrible’. And ‘too horrible’ – that’s the basic point of the whole speech! That’s where we end up, at the crescendo of the speech, on those two really heavy stresses.

And what’s happening here is that the natural phrasing, the rhythm of spoken English, is starting to take over from the regular ticking of the metre. At the mid-point of Shakespeare’s career, there’s a wonderful tension and balance between the energy and hypnotic intensity of the metre and also the natural speech rhythms of people in heightened emotional states.

So one very common way of analysing the rhythm of a passage of verse is to scan, or trace, it’s metre, which we’ve already seen is iambic pentameter here. But another way you can do it is to pick out the words that you find yourself naturally stressing when you read it, because they feel like they carry the most emotional energy. If I do this for my reading of the speech, here are the words that stand out the most:

‘Ay… die… rot… kneaded clod… ice… violence… worse… worst… howling… too horrible’

Notice how they pretty well tell the story of the speech, in a stripped down version? And also how many rhymes occur, as well as alliteration? This is the alternative emotional and rhythmic current of the verse, that’s held in a creative tension with the underlying regular drumbeat of the metre.

OK so, Shakespeare has let the handbrake off, he’s revving the engine by varying the rhythm and allowing the stresses to pack together and convey Claudio’s fear and desperation. And thirdly, and maybe most importantly, he starts to dissolve our sense of the poetic line.

So, for for instance, we start off with some neatly end-stopped lines, which means that the end of each line is neatly aligned with the end of a phrase:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,

Even without looking at the page you can tell that ‘we know not where’ is the end of a line. And also ‘and to rot’. But in the next four lines, three of them are enjambed, which means that the phrasing spills over from the end of one line to the start of the next one:

This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,

So if we slow things down to see how this is working, we’ve got:

This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod,

So that’s a single clause and it’s actually a line and a half because the line breaks in between ‘become’ and ‘A kneaded clod’. Then the next clause is:

                                and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods,

Which is approximately the length of a single line, but it actually starts in the middle of one line, and ends in the middle of the next one.

After that we get:

                                             or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,

So ‘or to reside’ is the end of one line, and the phrase spills over to ‘In thrilling region’ at the start of the next line. It’s easier to see the pattern on the page but hopefully you can get the sense of what’s happening here: it’s as though everything has been shunted on and pushed forward and fallen down into the line below.

Or to go back to our motoring analogy, the handbrake is off, Shakespeare is revving the engine and now he’s ramming the car straight through one line ending after another, like he’s demolishing a row of traffic cones that have been laid out by the poetry police.

And then in the next few lines, he really loses it and floors the accelerator:

To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling; ’tis too horrible!

So I don’t think I need to go through this line by line, you can feel the phrases bursting through the line endings, and the whole thing speeds up, the metre is like an engine in top gear. And it reaches a climax with that word ‘howling’, it’s like he’s finally crashed the car and the extra stresses on ‘too horrible’ are like the aftershocks, or the car ricocheting into another obstacle after the first impact.

And after that, the final few lines feels like he’s picking himself out of the wreckage and stumbling away towards the hard shoulder and he’s shaking and terrified, but he’s incredibly relieved just to still be alive:

The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

If we feel like switching up the analogy, and I think Shakespeare has given us plenty of licence to do that, we say that Marlowe’s blank verse is like a big marble staircase, with one line placed neatly after the other, so that his characters can stride down while we admire them. Claudio’s speech, from Shakespeare’s mature period, feels more like a spiral staircase where one step is always turning into another one and spinning us round and round. And by the end of the speech, we’re running in a panic down the stairs and falling headlong down the stairwell.

So if you remember back in Episode 18 on Emily Dickinson I talked about the three basic types of poetry identified by Aristotle, the dramatic, the epic and the lyric. So in these two episodes about Marlowe and Shakespeare we’ve seen the development of dramatic blank verse, from a fairly stately and ordered pattern to a very flexible and emotionally expressive medium. As I said earlier, at this point in his career Shakespeare was a virtuoso who could adapt blank verse to express just about any emotion or state of mind or dramatic situation.

And here the overriding emotion is fear but we could have a whole series of episodes showcasing how Shakespeare plays with the structure of blank verse to express different types of emotion. And I’m sure we will come back to Shakespeare plenty of times on this podcast.

But for our next instalment in this blank verse mini series, we’re going to look at another great English poet, who used blank verse to write epic poetry. So fasten your seatbelts, next month we will be flying high!

 


From Measure for Measure, Act 3 Scene 1

by William Shakespeare

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling; ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.


William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare portrait

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, actor and entrepreneur who was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He wrote more or less 39 plays, most of them for the company he co-founded, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later known as The King’s Men. He also wrote sonnets and narrative poems. In 1623 two members of The King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published a collected edition of his plays; in the front of the book was a poem by Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, who wrote, ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’.


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

According to Podcast Review, A Mouthful of Air is one of the 9 Best Podcasts for Poetry Lovers.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

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2 Comments

  1. Ray Theron

    What a pleasant surprise to come across this discussion! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Took me back to my varsity days. Thank you!

    Reply

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