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The Sexual Motives of Duke Vincentio in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

July 11th, 2010

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Concrete characters, like people, have many different aspects of their personality and are complex creations. These characters leave room for analysis and provoke the reader into asking questions about the character’s personality. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure presents such characters that can be read and interpreted in numerous different ways. One particular character, Duke Vincentio, seemingly manipulates the events of the play to result in a happy ending. Carolyn Brown’s article, “The Homoeroticism of Duke Vincentio”, suggests that the Duke has hidden, sexual motives that are discreetly expressed in his speech, his actions, and through his relationships with other characters.

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Carolyn Brown first turns to historical facts to support her argument. She compares the play’s plot and the character of the Duke to the real life events surrounding the reign of England’s James I. According to Brown, James I abused his power by using it to “fulfill his sexual desires and to reward and protect his favorites. ” These partial actions on behalf of the king included “giving these young men power and positions as a way to show affection for them and to win their attentions” and “protecting his favorites for crimes they had committed” (Brown). In Measure For Measure, the Duke clearly does both of these things by undeservingly giving Angelo the temporary absolute power that should have gone to the older, wiser Escalus and later absolving him from all moral or lawful crimes at the end of the play. James I was also notorious for having relationships with young, handsome men and his frequent and public displays of affection for them caused great controversy amongst his subjects. The Duke, if interpreted in the manner that Brown suggests, reflects this behavior in the play and shares the same sexual motivations as King James I. Furthermore, the author insists that the Duke’s role as a reflection of James I is hidden through general praise because Shakespeare wanted to avoid any repercussions for any negative portrayal of the king. Shakespeare’s audience related to the fictionalized situation of an unfair and morally unsound ruler because they themselves were upset with similar problems in their court. The questionable legitimacy of a ruler with a blatantly compromised moral character was, according to Brown, “hotly debated during James’s reign. ”

The relationship between the Duke and Angelo can seem to be unimportant or casual because they do not share much time together in the play. Closer examination, however, exposes a possible intimate relationship between the two.

From the beginning of the play, the Duke treats Angelo with great fondness. He addresses the young deputy with affection and uses “language that seems unusually intimate” and contains “subtext that strikes us as markedly familiar” (Brown). These phrases are scattered throughout the play and include referring to Angelo as being “so near us” (5. 1, 123), and that he has “drest [Angelo] with our love” (1. 1, 19). He chooses Angelo over Escalus to execute his leadership in his absence, despite Escalus’ more appropriate age and experience. The Duke states that he made the decision to give Angelo the power with “special soul” (1. 1, 18). Carolyn Brown attributes this gift to Angelo as an expression of love and an attempt on the Duke’s part to win the affection of his depute through gratitude. Furthermore, upon transferring power to the inexperienced depute, the departing Duke asks for Angelo’s hand (another possible indicator – he asks for Angelo’s hand in both of the scenes that they appear in together) and pauses to give advice. His advice, however, does not relate to his obligations as ruler, but is on a personal level. Instead of offering political advice, the Duke launches into a carpe diem speech about Angelo’s desires, urging him to use his “torch” (1. 1, 32). He also repeats several times that Angelo can do whatever he pleases with no limitations. Brown suggests that the Duke repeats the terms of his gift in order to make Angelo more appreciative.

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