Description

The poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) regarded Measure for Measure as ‘the most painful’ or ‘rather, the only painful’ work by Shakespeare. Coleridge's responses are recorded in handwritten notes crammed onto the title page of the play, in his personal copy of The Works of Shakespeare edited by Lewis Theobald (1688–1744).

What does Coleridge say about Measure for Measure?

Coleridge sees both the ‘comic and tragic’ aspects of the play as hateful, ‘disgusting’ and ‘horrible’. He is particularly baffled by Shakespeare’s treatment of Angelo, the hypocritical deputy to the Duke of Vienna. Coleridge finds Angelo’s ‘cruelty ... lust and damnable Baseness’ morally unforgiveable and contrary to justice. This makes the play’s conclusion – Angelo’s marriage to Mariana and the Duke’s willingness to pardon him – deeply problematic. Moreover, Angelo’s behaviour towards Isabella and Mariana is ‘degrading to the character of Woman’.

Coleridge compares Measure for Measure to John Fletcher’s The Night-Walker (1640), which he finds even more ‘loathsome’. He says little about the ‘counterbalancing beauties’ of Shakespeare’s play, since we can take these for granted.

In his Table Talk of 24 June 1827, Coleridge repeated these criticisms and laid into other characters, saying ‘Our feelings of justice are grossly wounded in Angelo’s escape. Isabella herself contrives to be unamiable, and Claudio is detestable’.[1]

Coleridge made famous notes on other plays in another edition of Shakespeare held in the British Library.

Lewis Theobald’s illustrated edition of Shakespeare

Theobald’s 8-volume edition first appeared in 1733, and was reprinted several times with illustrations by the Frenchman, Hubert Gravelot. The frontispiece for Measure for Measure in this 1773 edition shows Act 5, Scene 1 of the play. The Duke, dressed in his normal clothing and no longer disguised as a friar, meets Angelo and Escalus near the city gates. Isabella, prompted by Friar Peter, exposes Angelo as a ‘virgin-violator’ (5.1.41).

 

[1] Extracts from Table Talk were edited by H N Coleridge, Coleridge’s son-in-law and nephew, and printed in Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and other English Poets by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, collected by T Ashe (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), pp. 531–32.

Transcript

  1. Transcript

    This Play, which is Shakespeare's throughout, is to me the most painful, say rather, the only painful, part of his genuine works. The comic and tragic parts equally border on the μισητόν [a Greek word meaning hateful], the one disgusting, the other horrible, and the pardon and marriage of Angelo not merely baffles the strong indignant claim of justice (for cruelty, with lust and damnable Baseness, cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive them as being morally repented of) but it is likewise degrading to the character of Woman. Beaumont and Fletcher, who can follow Shakespeare in his errors only, have presented a still worse, because more loathsome and contradictory instance of the same kind in the Night-Walker, in the marriage of Alathe to Algripe. Of the counterbalancing beauties of Measure for Measure, I need say nothing; for I have already said that it is Shakespeare's throughout.
    S. T. Coleridge