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In virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays, members of both high and low society are represented, and often the interplay between these two classes offers some kind of moral commentary on an issue. This common set up is found in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, where the issue on every character’s mind is sex, and the classes collide over the morality of carnal pleasures. In the play, when the historically liberal Duke of Vienna “travels abroad” and leaves Angelo, a strict temporary ruler, to govern in his stead, the city is faced with new punishments for the sexual freedoms that its citizens have always enjoyed. While the brunt of this regime’s disciplinary actions falls on Claudio, the play’s main fornicator and arguably its leading male, the treatment of the play’s low class characters is far more interesting. Shakespeare offers a complicated view of these men and women, members of an underworld community that deal in illegal activities such as prostitution for business, pleasure, or both. Through interaction with their social superiors and communion with their peers, underworld characters such as Mistress Overdone and Pompey are often presented as sympathetic individuals who are condemned by a ruling class that is just as corrupt as the people they criticize.

For a woman who runs a brothel, Mistress Overdone’s first scene in the play shows her in a fairly sympathetic light. Although he prefaces Overdone’s entrance with jokes about venereal disease, Shakespeare highlights the bawd’s humanity as a struggling business owner who worries about her livelihood (even if her business is managing prostitutes). After delivering the news of Claudio’s arrest and imminent execution to Lucio and the two “gentlemen,” Overdone is left alone on stage for a moment of solitary reflection. The bawd says to herself, “Thus what with the war, what / with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with / poverty, I am custom-shrunk” (I.2.80-82). Here Shakespeare paints a rather dismal picture of the state of Vienna where disease, war, death, and suffering run rampant. Mistress Overdone, faced with many obstacles impeding her business, is portrayed as an individual trying to sustain herself in a harrowing world. Shakespeare gives his audience a glimpse of the inner thoughts of this woman of the underworld community, whose reputation and trade is reviled by the elites. By exposing Overdone’s feelings to the audience, Shakespeare makes the brothel owner seem relatable and sympathetic. Later, in Overdone’ dialogue with Pompey, Shakespeare makes it clear that the bawd’s concern is so great because managing the brothel is not just her profession but her livelihood. “What shall become of me?” Overdone asks in a moment that borders on desperation (104). This also marks the point at which Shakespeare introduces the idea of the “underworld community,” a seedy bunch derided by the upper class who come together not only to do business, but to support each other in times of need. In response to Overdone’s distress, Pompey comforts her accordingly:

Come, fear not you; good counselors lack no

clients….

…I’ll be your tapster still. Courage,

there will be pity taken on you; you that have worn

your eyes almost out in the service, you will be considered. (105-110)

Full of compassion and encouragement, Pompey tells Overdone that she will survive these hard times and reaffirms his loyalty to her. The tapster expresses a level of genuine care for his partner in lecherous crime that is never seen between couplings of the upper class such as Escalus and Angelo, or the Duke and Friar Thomas. Moving from an individual level of assurance to a broader community-based support system, Pompey alludes to Overdone’s network of clients, partners, employees, and friends that will not abandon her. As if there were some kind of underworld code, Pompey maintains that Overdone’s credibility and reputation within her camp will allow her to carry on in the face of adversity. Regardless of the underworld’s questionable moral compass, the support system at work in the community is significant. Through voicing the worries and exposing the relationships of the underworld denizens, Shakespeare sympathetically portrays a bawd and the camaraderie she shares with her equally condemned peers.

While Shakespeare may sympathize with his underworld characters, the upper class players of Measure for Measure do not share the author’s sentiments. Throughout the play, members of the ruling class are seen opposing the underworld community and condemning its way of life. Prompted by their power and motivated by a sense of self-righteousness, these high-class characters not only condemn bawdy acts but also personally disparage the people who commit them. When Pompey is brought before Escalus, an old advisor to the Duke, for being a “partial bawd,” the aristocrat condescendingly questions the clown about his profession. After calling Pompey virtually worthless (“your bum is the greatest thing about you”), Escalus asks the clown if he is not in fact a bawd (II.1.207-210). The simple Pompey maintains that he is but “a poor fellow that would live,” connoting his position as a lowborn worker who just wants to get by in the world (212). Escalus continues, asking Pompey if he thinks being a bawd is a lawful trade. The clown turns the question around on Escalus, stating that the sex trade would not be a problem in his eyes if the law would allow it, again suggesting that Escalus and the new Vienna government is threatening the clown’s livelihood. After some further repartee between the two, Escalus lets Pompey off with a warning. The Duke’s advisor makes sure, however, to intimidate Pompey with promises of whippings and beatings should he receive another complaint about the bawd going about his dirty business. Pompey pretends to yield to Escalus’ warnings, but in an aside confirms to the audience that he will continue to deal in the sex trade. This interaction clearly shows Escalus’ antipathy to the underworld community, on a level of principles and personal distaste. While Pompey is portrayed as a generally harmless bawd going about his business, Escalus’ warning and obvious condescension toward him and his profession seems overly punitive.

But not every member of the underworld community is lucky enough to receive a mere warning from the ruling class; some are punished much more heavily for their transgressions. As tensions around fornication and its consequences rise in Act III of the play, Mistress Overdone, “a bawd of eleven years’ continuance,” is called upon to answer for the crime of running her brothel (III.2.187). While her business has previously been looked upon as an acceptable practice, Angelo’s new strict government marks Overdone as a criminal. Although Overdone is summarily thrown in jail under Escalus’ orders, Shakespeare does not allow his sympathetic bawd to go down without some form of vindication. Before being taken away, Overdone exposes the hypocrisy of Lucio, the one who informed Escalus of Overdone’s illegal activity. Overdone testifies: “Mistress Kate Keepdown was with child by him in the duke’s time; he promised her marriage. His child is a year and a quarter old… I have kept it to myself, and see how he goes about to abuse me” (190-194). Mistress Overdone brings to light the transgressions of her accuser; the man who charged her for dealing in the sex trade turns out to be a customer of her menagerie of paid sexual pleasures. By illuminating the serious hypocrisy of the upper class, Shakespeare vastly decreases the moral gap between the two groups. He even allows for a reading that criticizes the upper class much more harshly for the ultimate error of hypocrisy on top of their sexual deviations. Overdone proves that it is not only the underworld denizens who “sin” by taking part in sexual acts that are against the law—the upper class is equally guilty of this supposed crime that they punish others for committing. And while Lucio is not necessarily a member of the strict government that doles out penances for sex, his hypocritical breach of the law echoes that of Angelo’s, the head of this anti-sex regime. Although the elite of society condemn and punish these members of the underworld community, Shakespeare offers a kind of vindication for his lowborn characters by exposing the hypocrisy of the aristocrats and the indiscriminate nature of sexual license.

In Measure for Measure, it is the interplay between high and low class citizens that fleshes out the true problems of Vienna. While the elites and the rulers condemn the socially inferior bawds for their business, Shakespeare seems to defend them, showing them in a favorable light, which emphasizes their humanity, and casts their professions as practices that are necessary to their livelihoods. Though the denizens of the underworld do receive warnings and punishments from the upper class, Shakespeare vindicates his bawds and illustrates the fact that sexual transgressions are committed by all, regardless of societal standpoint. Ultimately, it is the hypocrisy and the perceived class differences in Vienna, not the sexual deviance, that plague the characters of this play.

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