William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure
The desires of the characters in Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure are not entirely clear, and are made ambivalent and ambiguous by the use of their language. Particularly in 3.1.52-153, when Isabella visits Claudio in prison, ambiguous lines and puns make it unclear whether Isabella desires Claudio’s death and whether he truly desires to be free of sin. These desires were further convoluted by viewing the current Folger Theatre production of the play.
"Trade" (151) is one pun which illuminates ideas about Claudio's desires. Taken to mean an exchange, Isabella insinuates that Claudio's sin and death are like the title of the play, a measure taken for a measure, or rather a punishment that fits the crime. However, Freud's notion of the compulsion to repeat is evoked when the word is taken to mean a habit. Isabella insinuates Claudio's perpetual sinning earlier when she comments that Claudio's freedom would "offend [Angelo] still" (99) by continuing his behavior. The concept of the death drive as a desire to return to the womb also emerges when Isabella warns Claudio that accepting Angelo's offer "Would bark your honour from that trunk you bear / And leave you naked" (70-71), the image of debarking a tree becoming a form of regression.
Claudio's response that he would "encounter darkness as a bride / And hug it in [his] arms" (82-3) is wholly ambivalent and ambiguous. It could be a straightforward admission to his desire for death, also showing that he readily accepts his punishment. Additionally falling under Freud's philosophy, it could instead be an admission of his compulsion to repeat: he would make love to death as his bride, just as he did to Juliet.
Isabella accepts Claudio's statement as a readiness for death. However, another possible interpretation offers the opposite: that Claudio admits his desire to do evil deeds, if darkness is taken to mean evil rather than death. If Claudio is willing to be wed to evil, then he would have no qualms about his sister doing the same, or at the very least fornicating with Angelo for his “devilish mercy” (63). This possibility is bolstered by Claudio’s shift in tone and possible lack of concern for his sister’s soul when he begs “Sweet sister, let me live” (134), and attempts to justify the consequences by appealing to her good nature, calling her sin a potential virtue.
However, this desire to live also stems from a desire for certainty, which he fears he cannot have in death, expressed in lines 118-132. Much like the ambivalence and ambiguity of other lines in this scene, this passage expresses several simultaneous possibilities for the afterlife. In a somewhat Ovidian fashion, the “sensible warm motion” morphs paradoxically into places with both “fiery floods” and “thick-ribbed ice.” Comparing the uncertainty of death to known suffering in life reaffirms Claudio’s desire to live.