Letter to Neil Steinberg
Measure for Measure (never sent)
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20130320                                                Morality

Written to the Sun Times Columnist, March 18 - 20, 2013, after Neil's column that said the play "Measure for Measure" shocked him. Since he does not seem to be the shockable type I went to see the play, then read the play, then went again. (not sent yet, Nov. 1, 2013)

Thank you again, Neil.

Perhaps you recall I am the long, white-bearded man (my hair is long too) who asked the last question about sin at the "Meet with the Director", Robert Fall. This email is quite long, so if you don't have time now or ever, thank you for introducing me to the play. If you do have the time now or later, this is a follow-up to my question at the meet, which had to do with sin and it use in authoritarian systems. Because you may now have a picture of my appearance in mind, you may be a little hindered, at least for awhile, in your ability to decipher the meaning behind the words I write. How is this so? Just by the same conclusion as your wonderful column today about the one-car garage addressing how our biases affect our perceptions. I know not what bias you bring to my physical appearance, but some, as we all do with all physical appearances (Note 0). You appeared to me older and wiser than your Sun-Times picture, reinforcing my biases. Anyway, I thought perhaps you wrote the column about the one-car garage after seeing and thinking about the previous day's column about Measure for Measure. Perhaps the shock you described on Sunday was measured against some bias, such as you described on Monday. Measure for Measure is completely new to me. I have now read it several times. So, thank you again teacher, for juxtaposing thoughts to challenge my biases. In the following, as a student of your topics, I ramble at quite some length about sin, mercy, and justice as presented in Measure for Measure, filtered through my biases from my habits of thought. So thanks again, and proceed as you will, for, with both the above and below, my journal grows with this letter to you, and several others not sent; I write for myself quite often. It seemed to me on first reading of the play, before I saw Robert Fall’s production, that Isabella was the greatest sinner, followed at some distance by Angelo, then the Duke. After seeing the play, I suspect perhaps Robert Fall agrees or at least acknowledges that interpretation. Shakespeare seems to me to play the topic of sin (the child of morality) off against both the state's and religion's take on it. He draws on morality in the Sermon on the Mount, the espoused morality of England at the time, as well as now, as well as here. However in that literature sex is only mentioned as adultery; in fact Jesus never condemns premarital sex anywhere I am aware of, but ALL our characters do. However, Jesus does condemn deceit, which, again, ALL our characters engage in.

Another place I have perhaps a different take on the play is with the duke's reasons for leaving things up to Angelo. The words and delivery in Fall's play emphasized the Duke's belief that corruption had gotten out of hand and he really wanted someone "straight and narrow" to straighten things out (quotes again a paraphrase from Sermon on the Mount). I suspect the Duke thought otherwise and was merely being obsequious to the priest when he told him his plan, because he wanted the priest's instructions in how to pull off his disguise (Cliff Notes acknowledges possible obsequiousness but not deceit of the priest). I imagine him very humbly saying that soliloquy but Fall played it adamantly, though very effectively. I think he, the Duke, just wanted to test his hypothesis that he was ruling well, by not ruling. Shakespeare is always Shakespeare and double depth is everywhere. Remember his mode of ruling was really not ruling, letting things go, being "isolated". So by leaving he was not ruling and therefore not 'not ruling' so Angelo could rule. He did test his hypothesis and was vindicated. The ending was the only way out: give the sinners measure for measure and let nature take its natural course as it had before he left, whereby he can return to be a good ruler again, forget about sin, and lead the "isolated life." As to why Shakespeare did not punish Isabella; well, he did, she got married and lost her virtue, the greatest loss of all, so she claimed, measure for measure. I rather think that the whole last act (just one scene) was a quickly contrived acceptable ending that let the matter rest comfortably in the morality of merry old 1600 England, poised to feel the blade of Angelo's (Cromwell's) sin-hating roundheads who beheaded Charles, James' (the Duke?) son and successor just 15 or 20 years later for not hating sexual sin enough, among other things.

But even further, such a deep play it is, I think Shakespeare, besides distinguishing State Law and God's Law, also distinguishes the associated secular doctrine of fairness from the religious doctrine of mercy; both I believe under his sharp scalpel of condemnation, perhaps God Law and its associated mercy the more so. The cliff notes say the play is all about mercy and how Shakespeare was attempting to point out that justice should be tempered with mercy. Ah yes. But contrarian that I am, why need mercy in the first place? All parties, I note ALL parties in the play agreed with the justice of the “law” that some form of sex was bad: sex without formal marriage (Angelo, the State), sex without commitment (the Mob), sex for payment (Madame Overdone), or just sex (Isabella or God). Because it is bad, it needs to be punished: death by the State, damnation of the soul to eternal hell by the Church. Isabella thought the sin much worse than did Angelo. She was willing to let her brother die rather than sully herself with such vile a sin as sex, evil bodily concern that it is (see Note 1). Behind both, in mutually supporting ways, is a dark concept of human nature; one that perceives that, if unrestrained, our most base instincts of violence and bodily pleasure (sex being but one manifestation, drugs another) will take over and lead society (and the individual) to chaos and misery; very Hobbesian, though Shakespeare beat him to press by 40 years or so. Shakespeare also points out the very deep ties of this dark view to Platonic "ideals" such as goodness and justice that can shed "light" upon the world. Thanks to Plato, such ideals can occur, but only "outside" the cave of shadows available to the senses. Such ideals don't exist in the "world of the senses", according to this transcendental philosophy, but, nonetheless are the "only true" reality; God is more real than ........ well ........ than anything; the "ideal" is the real and the "real" as available to the senses, the body, is sullied, corrupted, or at least inferior. Combine now further the older Jewish ideals of sacrifice, and we have the persona of Isabella, sacrificing her sensate body for her transcendental soul thereby maintaining "virtue". Here I think she gravely sins for Shakespeare, and even more certainly for me. Sure, upholding one's honor is a virtue, but to such a degree for such a trivial thing as "what everyone does" "all the time" as several characters point out several times? and as Claudio says, if a sin at all, the least of the fatal seven? (see note 1, again, and note 6, synopsis of Act III, Scene I, where I think the play climaxes) However, if there is no sin, there is no need for mercy. Mercy then, like a pardon by the state, mentioned by Angelo, is a weapon of control over others: i.e. please me and I will show mercy beyond the strict and fair application of the law. In one case the State (Angelo) is to be pleased, noting the irony of the fee he demands, i.e. sex, the same crime which both he and she so abhor and he is so adamant to punish as an example of proper "authority" (back to the question at the meet). In the other case God (Isabella) must be placated for mercy, and, speaking for God (another sin) Isabella says she cannot grant God's grace, but believes God's mercy for her depends on her own actions to preserve her purity (her greatest sin, I think). She selfishly, deeply selfishly puts herself, her "virtue" above all else. In all cases, mercy or justice both REQUIRE the sin, which both Angelo and Isabella agree is a sin. Perhaps Shakespeare is asking, and I think Jesus is saying in the SOTM, that is the sin. Pompey is the only one who doesn’t, really agree. Madame Overdone does, but says she’s got to make a living. Escalus, good sycophant that he is, is sure it’s a sin, he just wavers on justice versus mercy, and he isn't even sure what 'it' is, i.e. the crime or the sin, but his counsel is wise.

Judge not others lest you be so judged by others; yet still be judged yourself by God. The new Christian covenant, but most don't want to accept the second part, so they justify judging others, as Freud might say displacing "retribution" for their own judgments (sins). More importantly and shallower, most also don't want to give up the old of "Punish the sin" that comes from judging, because punishing others makes us feel so good and righteous. Also, as Isabella, the masochist, discovered, we can punish ourselves with more joy than punishing others as she desired in Scene 1. By the way, Shakespeare uses all his characters to present his "truths", so wonderful nuanced statements of both good and evil often come from any character, statements that often put the lie to the life of their speaker. The Duke is an interesting character often used this way, as are Pompey, Isabella, Angelo, and Escalus. The Duke sinned in deceit and subterfuge. However, I also think he is the primary spokesman for several viewpoints, Buddha and Ecclesiastes included, as well as the SOTM, but that could be a book in itself. The point here is that for Shakespeare of course "virtuous truth" in what characters say does not absolve them of guilt, nor visa versa, for he saw, I believe, that good and evil can be found in all people, especially when stereotyped as all playwrights must do. I think the principles in Measure for Measure apply to all laws, concepts of justice, punishment, sin and their relations to our views of morality. Wonderful play, thank you Neil for introducing me. Seeing Isabella as the primary sinner may not be common, but I think not rare, which brings me full circle to your column today about how we tend to perceive in what we see what we want to believe. We tend to see, at least at first glance, our own morality reflected in the world, both sin and virtue. Juxtaposing this with Measure for Measure leads me deep. Shakespeare chose sex as the topic, probably, for its scintillating appeal; he definitely had a bawdy side. However, perhaps he chose sex also because it represents sin defined as our very basic human nature (original sin), thus assuring punishment by authority, secular and heavenly, both of others and self as a viable tool for social control. Aggression and sex, the two most sinful acts by both institutions, are both buried deep in our DNA, giving those who want to punish others fertile fields in which to play.


Note 0. However, all is not lost. Rechecking our perceptions against the senses (themselves often in error with respect to our biases as well) in the attempted absence of those self-same biases is the noble pursuit of wisdom, in both law and science (my training). You rechecked your senses when your wife told you the big garage was yet to come. Overcoming habit of thought, however, is one of the hardest things to do, because we all arrive at our current place of thinking, often thinking “this is it”, to quote Brigham Young, who said it for land, rather than truth, he’d already said that. Had your wife not said that, you may have written a column about trends to lower consumption based on your "observation". Such ‘truth’ can be "I don't know" or even “I know I don’t know”; situational as well as general; demonstrably wrong as well as thought right (hats off to Karl Popper here) often at the same time.

Note 1. I refer to the early Christian debates that eventually claimed to exclude but actually adopted pre Christian Gnostic beliefs of bodily baseness and transcendental “heavenly” but secret knowledge available only to initiates. This is to me an extreme version of Plato's light outside the cave being available only to the rigorously trained mind. The very early Bishop Iraneaus rose to fame denouncing the very Gnostic ideas he adopted, which he then turned into the hierarchical power structure used so effectively by the church to rule over men's souls. Iraneaus argued that trained clerics with the special knowledge, i.e. what became the priesthood (initiates of the Gnostics), were necessary to act as moderators to guide the people’s conversations with God. Such guidance or blessing even the Duke sought from the real priest in the play, or perhaps as I implied above, he feigned only to receive the priest's instructions. The other idea of the Gnostics, that bodily things are bad and unworthy of attention has survived in our obsession with sex, as an evil, though other of our traditions allow it as a rightful pleasure, but under strong regulation to appease the Gnostics. Current expression of this Gnostic obsession is seen in every day's paper: the gay issue, sex-abuse story of the day, fallen generals and politicians caught in sexual daliances, "illegitimate" child of Michael Jordon, and on and on and on. Our ongoing story with sex has it all: sin, virtue, golden rule, severe punishment with little real harm done, measure for measure. It's all there in spades, today, as in Shakespeare's day, as in Mohammed's day, as in Jesus' day, as in Lao Tzu's day. Perhaps our current moralism (I sniff a dragon's breath upon the air) is a little worse than usual now. I suspect we took a very wrong turn that way on 9/11, or perhaps we all think our own times the worst. Let us consider this "crime" or "sin" of sex in a little more detail as an example. Before continuing, however, I must note that I am a registered sex offender, classified as a sexual predator for life (Note 2). So proceed, I suggest only with bias in mind, yours now as well as mine, but "step carefully, my son", I tell myself, "for we are about to enter the dragon's lair." (note 4) What is the harm done to one by touching a young girl's breast, or vagina, or even inserting a finger into a vagina or rectum for the boys, or even inserting a penis into either or even into a mouth or hand? Some physical harm occasionally, torn rectal and vaginal tissue is the quite common, vaginal tearing not as often in post menstrual girls, bruises, maybe. Physical pain? Yes perhaps, temporary, maybe some pleasure as well. Imposition of will upon another? Upon a child? Unfair use of authority to compel action thought right by the authority but perhaps wrong by the compelled? Or even actions compelled though thought wrong by the authority? Yes all of the above, sins all. I think I also just described parenthood. We treat any other cause of such physical and mental effects on others quite leniently and even praise "education" and even pleasure, in the "right" way of course. So it must be something other than avoidance of physical harm or even psychological harm arising from physical harm. We commonly accept more harm elsewhere, often with praise, yet sexual "harm" is something we punish so harshly. Isabella called it her virtue, as did a neighbor when I described the play to her. She agreed with Isabella, that to give up her virtue for another is absurd, immoral, and not what God wants. Step cautiously, my son, the dragon's breath is strong in the air. So what is this virtue that is so important? Isabella (or her surrogate in my front room) and I talked and she said it was her free will, her right to chose what to do with her body, her soul, her thought, her belief and that NO ONE has a right to take that from her. I agreed and offered that not only do they have no right; they have no ability. She disagreed. She continued that her body was God's temple and each god-fearing person should take care of it in reverence to him. Again I agreed, though added she might want to love god and god might be a she (or other I thought) and I suggested all people should do likewise. She agreed, hesitatingly about the sex of God I think more to allow continuance of our conversation than her belief. So I asked what does sex have to do with virtue, more than say food. She said none, both are God's sacred gifts. I agreed. And that we should treasure these gifts and not give them out cheaply. I agreed. And if we give them out cheaply, we dishonor God. I agreed. Since our body is our temple, if we give out sex without sanction by God or his agent on earth, the State, we lose that thing called virtue and are condemned to eternal hell where we will suffer unimaginable pain if not for God's grace and mercy. I disagreed. To call upon another current story, the Penn State "scandal", several columnists in your newspaper, Mary Mitchel, Lynn Sweet, Rick Morrissey, Rich Telander, and numerous syndicated columnists like Dear Abby and Cheryl Lavin, all wrote statements to the effect, to quote Mary, "their lives are ruined forever", describing the victims of the assistant coach's sexual sins (note 5). So I might ask, as I think Shakespeare is asking, "Which is the more abusive, telling someone they are ruined for life or having unsanctioned sex with someone. I might note in this case the "victims" kept coming back, young perhaps, though apparently willing for whatever reason, tickets to the game, fear of shame, even, perhaps 'what the hey', some pleasure as well. But we wanted to topple a whole university for that one man's crimes, not the physical harm he caused, but the theft of those boy's virtue. Perhaps there was deep love in the act, both ways perhaps, perhaps not. Any such statements of love, statements which were made by the coach, which he was required to retract as part of his contrition (which he did not), and even by some of the victims (though "admitting" later after intensive counseling that they were deluded), any such thoughts are promptly scared away from the mind of them and us by Mary's (Angelo's AND Isabella's) words. And so for an act of love (Claudio and Juliette, at least, if not Penn State) they must be punished and punished harshly, for taking the victim's virtue, "ruining them for life". How strange a measure says Shakespeare. I agree.

Note 2. Apparently I had one picture of a partly naked girl under 18 years old on my computer (six they say or so charged). (See Note 3). Before I said anything in my defense, I was told both by the police and by my appointed lawyer that my guilty verdict was assured, as it is for ALL child sex crimes, guilt or not, and if I pled not guilty my sentence would be far worse because it would demonstrate non contrition I pled guilty to a "plea-bargained" single charge, was sentenced to two years in prison, but having spent a year in jail was immediately released. The pictures were probably there. So in a sense, I am Claudio, though I was put to death; I now live by different rules than you, unless you too are a registered sex offender; there over 25,000 of us here in Illinois ranging from serial rapist of 6 year olds to ...... well ..... me. But you can't be a registered sex offender, you still have your job. I received a two-year sentence for that single series of ones and zeros somewhere on my computer disk, half-time off, of course for "good behavior", which everyone gets because we gotta empty those beds, more prisoners to be processed, mores sin to be corrected. So I was never in prison, where they could observe whether I was good or not, because I was released the day I checked in, for two hours of good behavior , I guess. But I got my DOC number tattooed on my forehead in the great computer in the sky. By the way, that year in jail was one of the best of my life; one of 67 all tied for best. So with my obvious biases, some might say insight, I return you to the story of sin and sex.

Note 3. If you are reading this deep into my email, welcome, perhaps again, for I have written you before, as perhaps you knew even before you opened this email. Perhaps I have been screened out by some filter or some quick read of subject lines or first sentences , automated at first probably, then by you. If so screened, you will not be reading this and it is all in vain as Ecclesiastes (your book too) says, whether you are reading it or not, both this and Ecclesiates. Anyway, perhaps you save all emails, perhaps under some company policy with your options for saving and deleting things. Perhaps, with the cost of production and storage of a letter of the alphabet, say, 100,000's of times cheaper than with paper, perhaps you guys save everything (legal suits you know). You answered briefly once or twice, I can't remember, I haven't check my files. But I too save my writings and correspondence, the stuff worth keeping at least, but I only save text which is cheap and requires almost no space by today's standards being set by *.tiff images and now even huge bit hogs like movies and sound. Anyway, I am glad you are here, reading this, for my Achilles' aspirations, if nothing else. I ask no response, However, every six month's or so I may get another hair up my ass and write again, unless you would prefer that I stop, but for that you must let me know. Either way, please continue the good work of leading us readers all in very thoughtful ways. I admire your ability to write so clearly, thoughtfully, and carefully several days a week. I remain one of your devoted students who is not sure whether I will follow you to the web if the paper stops publishing your column, the way its all going now. Anyway, back to my excuses for being a sex offender.

Note 4. I often use the metaphor of the dragon based on a story of Confucius saying he met a dragon that sours in the clouds and cannot be tamed after meeting Lao Tzu. Undoubtedly untrue. However, almost all Chinese restaurants have a picture often several with one or more dragons souring among the clouds. Because of my temerity, I have only asked a couple of waiters and waitresses, but so far none have known the story. By the way, the dragon in this story is the Yin of that Yang dragon.

Note 5. They are all in good company. In today's paper (March 20, page 21, col 2, para 2) even the new pope, the paragon of Isabella in the play, is quoted (before he was pope) that priests should not engage in sex abuse because they then "destroy the life of another person". How sad for that "abused" person that you think so, my pope. As stated above, I believe your belief of such destruction is more destructive than the original act, though, of course that original act too can be destructive and done for hate rather than love, even if for love if not welcomed; but to call someone ruined for life? Wow, such hate you seem to have for the body and it ability to take away our virtue to such a degree as to ruin a life. Satan works in mysterious ways. By the way, and perhaps I've written that before too, I don't believe in God or Satan, at least not in that way, but I find the language quite useful. If you are still here, note 6 is my review of the play.

Note 6. Review of Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene I, Isabella telling Claudio about Angelo's offer.

ISABELLA: Darest thou die?
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

This is one of Shakespeare’s aphorisms, spoken as a general “truth” by a character who he, I suspect, considered vile, as so vividly demonstrated in this scene. Shakespeare is a master of placing the good word in evil hearts, playing on our vanity and our lusts, including such lusts as for virtue and goodness. He also places evil words in good hearts. In this scene Shakespeare opens with the above quote, saying "Let's talk about death." Isabella then dissuades Claudio her brother from accepting his inevitable death, though that comfort was brought to him earlier in the scene by the Duke disguised as a priest, But Isabella tells him “Yes, brother, you may live: There is a devilish mercy in the judge”, dashing that comfort and raising his hopes. Then she tells him, though, he cannot live because to do so HE, already having lost his virtue, would have to lose his righteousness by asking her to lose her vitue. But she knows he, good family member and god fearing man that his is, won't do that, a and, given the situation, accept his rightful death. Offering hope then yanking it back and placing the blame on him is so, so, so very cruel. Why would she be so cruel as to even tell him of Angelo's evil scheme EXCEPT to parade her virtue before her sinner brother and everyone else. As Claudio says

“Why give you me this shame?”

Why indeed?

I believe this line is the climax and summary of the whole play. Claudio then presents I think Shakespeare’s take on this particular shame, speaking of Angelo,

CLAUDIO: Yes. Has he affections in him,
That thus can make him bite the law by the nose,
When he would force it? Sure, it is no sin,
Or of the deadly seven, it is the least.
Death is a fearful thing.

ISABELLA: And shamed life a hateful.

So, Isabella says, to paraphrase, "for my hate and shame, you must die your most feared death, a fear I just placed back in you reminding you of your sin the 'priest' (Duke) had just absolved you of."

So cruel is she.

Then Claudio expresses another of Shakespeare’s “truths” in his statement of life’s desirability over death; despite virtue, sin, oblivion, heaven, purgatory, hell, or any other imagining of human hate or love.

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.

To which I say, “Amen, but I focus on the paradise not the fear”, but Isabella says

O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame

I think Shakespeare says it is she, not he that is taking his life; such cruel, cruel irony and hypocrisy. Perhaps not, for Shakespeare is the master, and masters are a geniuses in supporting all sides and letting the crowd decide. Perhaps that’s why, similar to the saying “all philosophy is a but a footnote to Socrates”, all staged stories are but a footnote to the bard. As all great masters, he leads us to search our own souls.

I note that you appealed to Heidi Weiss for comment. Her review today (Tuesday, 3.19) seemed to say ...... well ..... “yawn”, but the acting was good. She preferred as “more engaging” the lighter scenes, calling Shakespeare and Fall’s rendition “cold” and “difficult to feel invested in the crucial plot line”. Based on this long, overdrawn babbling missive, I obviously disagree. Thank you again, if you are still here.