The Historye of Promos and Cassandra (1578) is a two-part play about a virtuous lady who sacrifices her virginity to a hypocritical magistrate, in order to save her brother’s life. George Whetstone (c. 1550–1587) adapted the plot from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565), but he added a humorous subplot with a roguish cast of urban prostitutes and tricksters. Whetstone’s play was probably never performed, but both the plot and subplot were important sources for Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
What happens in Promos and Cassandra?
The Argument summarises the plot (sigs. A4r–v):
The play is set in the fictional town of Julio, where the King of Hungary and Bohemia has left his deputy Lord Promos in charge. The severe rules of the city have been ‘little regarded’ until Promos sentences a young man, Andrugio, to death for sex outside marriage.
Andrugio’s sister Cassandra pleads for his life and Promos finds himself seduced by the ‘sweete order of her talke’. Prompted by his subordinate, Phallax, Promos offers to spare Andrugio if Cassandra has sex with him. She reluctantly agrees, on condition that Promos marries her. But once he is satisfied, Promos breaks this promise and commands the jailer to bring Cassandra her brother’s head. The jailer spares Andrugio and substitutes the ‘mangled’ head of an executed felon.
When the King returns with great ceremony to the city, Cassandra tells him of Promos’s offenses. The King commands that Promos should marry her and then be executed. Unsettlingly, however, Cassandra feels she is tied through ‘bondes of affection’ to her abusive new husband, and asks the King to save him. The ‘noble King’ spares both Andrugio and Promos, and Whetstone presents this as a moral example of virtue’s triumph over vice.
Which pages are digitised here?
- The moral contrast between sexual licence and control is set out in the first two scenes: Promos vows to inflict ‘sharp punishment’ on wrong-doers, but the beautiful prostitute Lamia tells how she earns her money by fulfilling the wanton desires of men (B1r–B2r).
- Promos betrays his double standards: after taking Cassandra’s virginity, he intends to break his promise of marriage, behead her brother for rape and conceal his own ‘filthy deede’. Ignorant of this, Cassandra still hopes to be his wife (E2r–v).
How does Shakespeare adapt Whetstone’s tale?
- Unlike Cassandra, Isabella has a religious vocation as a nun.
- She preserves her virginity through a bed-trick in which she is replaced by Mariana.
- The Duke proposes to Isabella at the end, though we don’t know whether she accepts him.
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Kate McLuskie explores how Shakespeare used a comic framework in Measure for Measure to debate ideas about rights, responsibilities and the social regulation of sexual relations.