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Sexualité, surveillance

“Millions of false eyes / Are stuck upon thee.” The scope of surveillance in Measure for Measure

Sébastien Lefait


Dans cet article, j’aborde la surveillance comme point de jonction des problématiques éthiques, politiques et esthétiques de Mesure pour Mesure. J’établis d’abord le lien entre les techniques de surveillance de l’époque de Shakespeare et les principaux couples thématiques de la pièce : prison et punition, autorité et rôle des dirigeants, loi divine et loi séculière. Je montre ensuite que le Duc véhicule une vision polymorphe de la surveillance. Si l’hyper-vision et la sur-information le caractérisent, il possède également une propension certaine à mettre en scène ce qui l’entoure. Je démontre enfin que la pièce envisage le théâtre comme une pâle imitation de la création divine, mais également comme une perversion de la surveillance divine. J’en conclus que Shakespeare utilise la surveillance dans le but de redéfinir le cliché du theatrum mundi, et d’évaluer ainsi la légitimité de l’art dramatique comme outil de capture, d’imitation, ou de recréation du réel.

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  • 1  My translation.

1In an article about Shakespeare and surveillance, Catherine Treilhou-Balaudé proposes that “Shakespeare’s plays [expose] the failures or dysfunctions of surveillance, rather than its regular functioning.” In her opinion, “the level at which surveillance fails the least is probably the aesthetic level, that of metatheatricality, when the surveillance that is implemented within dramatic fiction mirrors the audience’s reception of the play, while simultaneously reflecting on it and questioning it” (Treilhou-Balaudé, 14).1 The author successively studies the dimension of metaphysical surveillance in Hamlet, the surveillance architecture of Iago’s scheming in Othello, and the dramatic decentring the Duke operates in Measure for Measure. Her essay prepares the ground for a more complete study of the place of surveillance in the canon. Treilhou-Balaudé’s analysis shows reading the plays from the perspective of surveillance is an efficient way of connecting their various layers of meaning. Additionally, it is a method for investigating the complex intertwining of the diegetic and the extradiegetic that characterises Shakespeare’s works.

2My aim in this article is to bring additional arguments to this point. First, applying a surveillance grid to the plays helps inform Shakespeare’s analysis of the scopic regime of drama and of the power it grants the playwright. Second, the surveillance angle is an analytical instrument that induces a comprehensive perspective on Shakespeare’s mise en abyme patterns and on their role in establishing the plays’ reflexive trends. Indeed, the playwright often uses surveillance as an allegory of the interaction between watching entities and watched entities within theatrical space. A third complement to Treilhou-Balaudé’s approach regards the nature of the scenes or plays she places under the surveillance label. Academics often restrict the study of surveillance in Shakespeare’s plays to the numerous eavesdropping scenes they include. Nevertheless, scenes that have apparently little to do with surveillance often contain enlightening surveillance implications. Concerning Hamlet, for instance, a study of the dumb show and of the Mousetrap scene through the lens of surveillance may elicit a new angle on the power of the performance. The play within the play endows the Prince of Denmark with the power to expose a murderer and threaten a King. Through the embedded show, the stage metaphorically watches the audience. The producer of the inset exerts control over the spectators. A few cinematic productions have recently emphasised this dimension. Gregory Doran’s adaptation of Hamlet (2009) is one of them. So is Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011), which the director builds around the idea that the stage watches the groundlings in return. In Othello, to elaborate on another example Catherine Treilhou-Balaudé conjures up, the parodic eavesdropping moment of act 4 scene 1 dissociates hearing from seeing. The separation generates a perspective on the role of surveillance in constructing theatrical illusions. The heart of Iago’s manipulation consists in placing Othello in the position of overhearing conversations without being able to make out the matching dialogue. Thanks to this dissociation principle, Iago induces Othello to misinterpret what he has attended. Iago’s scheme reflects the turning of visual perceptions into what they are not that is the basis of successful theatrical enchantment.

3My main contention in this paper is that, in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s utilisation of surveillance patterns to anatomise drama reaches a more profound level than in Hamlet, Othello, or the other plays in which surveillance is directly involved. The playwright radicalises and synthesises the main analytical trends which surveillance generates. Surveillance thus becomes the nexus of the ethical, political and aesthetical aspects of Measure for Measure. To make this point, I will first relate the surveillance and disciplinary practices of Shakespeare’s time to some of the play’s prevalent thematic pairs: imprisonment and punishment, authority and the prerogatives of the ruler, divine rule and secular law. I will then show the character of the Duke stands as a polymorphous vehicle of surveillance. His status is characterised by hyper-vision and over-information, but also by a propensity to act as a stage producer to exert control over his subjects. I will finally advance that the play’s surveillance components participate in Shakespeare’s refining of the theatrum mundi cliché, and in his questioning of drama’s right to capture, imitate or re-create reality.

A surveillance experiment

4According to Harold Skulsky, Measure for Measure “offers several tests” in the efficiency of early modern forms of punishment (Skulsky, 98). The play deals with the mechanisms of control prevailing in the age. This is confirmed by Jonathan Dollimore, who notes that the play “gives the marginalised a voice, one which may confront authority directly but which more often speaks of and partially reveals the strategies of power which summon it into visibility” (Dollimore, 84). One of this article’s main ideas is that because of its comprehensive surveillance span, the play dramatises the imminent switch from one dominant conception of power to the next. Those perspectives on control are respectively embodied by Vincentio and Angelo.

5To compare forms of rulership, Shakespeare introduces an experimental protocol. The steps Vincentio takes to correct his mistakes as a ruler, for instance, evince his subtle understanding of command. By putting Angelo in office, the Duke does not merely act on the observation that his ruling strategies have become useless. Placing Angelo in a position of power also places him under the critical gaze of the “millions of false eyes” stuck upon rulers the Duke mentions at 4.1.60-61. A privileged spectator of Angelo’s control strategies, the Duke initiates a test. Its aim is to assess the efficiency and legitimacy of the methods he has not been able to use, which Angelo personifies. By setting the stage for this experiment in governance, however, the Duke also becomes an object of study himself. His scheme consists of deriving a superior form of power from his status as unknown, but constant, observer. This strategy also becomes a ruling technique. It is offered for the spectators to evaluate with the other disciplinary methods Measure for Measure focuses on.

  • 2  In his chapter, the author also insists on “the crucial political function of ecclesiastical surve (...)

6To strengthen this experimental procedure, Shakespeare introduces a dichotomy between places of concealment (the convent, the prison cell) and places of disclosure (the scaffold for public executions, the city gates as the setting of the Duke’s final demonstration of power in act five). However, those apparently differentiated spaces combine as the playwright theatricalises them. The spectators are given the chance to peek at environments they do not usually enter, but they also watch the Duke as he devises his schemes. Measure for Measure thus offers a joint visual investigation of secluded areas and backstage areas. The play peruses the inside of the most invisible locations in the early modern age, alongside the no less secret domination techniques of Kings and Queens. In fact, the binary framework of the play fits Curtis C. Breight’s description of the Elizabethan culture of surveillance as equally composed of “surveillance of the elite” and surveillance of “companies who doubted the state’s version of events or expressed sympathy for state victims” (Breight, 105).2

  • 3  The term Panopticon refers to one of the main concepts of surveillance studies. In the glossary to (...)
  • 4  In the play, rhetoric is also evaluated according to its propensity to act as a way to power. Neve (...)

7As I shall clarify below, Shakespeare’s reading of surveillance practices also occurs at a meta-theatrical level in Measure for Measure. At an internal level, the Duke first acts on the realisation that his old methods have become effective by implementing panoptic techniques,3 without necessarily using them as instruments of oppression, before switching to a more complex and innovative form of control. Besides, by introducing surveillance, the Duke starts a methodical evaluation of the ruling practices of Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare pares those strategies down to their visual components.4 The playwright first does so by describing the law as a mere spectacle without any material consequences. He then presents the notion that the mere staging of those consequences is sufficient for the law to work.

  • 5  In his chapter about Bentham’s plan for a new type of prison house, Foucault mentions “the princip (...)

8Through Vincentio and Angelo, the play thus stages the symbolic struggle between the various types of visual power Michel Foucault describes in his authoritative essay, Discipline and Punish. The Duke as he is at the beginning of the play represents the first one: resorting to visual deterrents. Vincentio reflects one of Foucault’s key ideas: the image of authority, rather than the staging of punishment, is sufficient for control to be effective.5The perspective thus offered on visual power comes close to Dollimore’s remark that “sin, especially when internalised as guilt, has produced the subjects of authority as surely as any ideology” (Dollimore, 85). Shakespeare gives a metaphorical view of such deterrent techniques when Claudio implicitly refers to Vincentio’s rulership, to show Angelo took the opposite stance. He mentions

[…] the enrolled penalties
Which have, like unscour’d armour, hung by th’wall
So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,
And none of them been worn (1.2.155-58)

9This form of command, however, suffers a crisis. Act one questions the efficacy of deterrent sentences by staging what Skulsky calls “the obsolescence of fear” (Skulsky, 98). The Duke blames himself for his past leniency in act 1 scene 3, admitting: “’Twas my fault to give the people scope” (1.3.35). Such self-criticism sounds like an admission of his faults. It leads to the exposure of laws that are not followed by effect. Angelo embodies this second viewpoint on authority. First of all, Angelo’s perspective on visibility connects eye perception with evidence. In act 1 scene 2, Claudio explains Angelo punishes him because his union with Juliet lacks “outward order” (1.2.138). Though their marriage is effective, it is not visibly so. From Angelo’s point of view, this discrepancy is a projection of disorder. The fact Juliet’s pregnancy, unlike her matrimony, is “writ” “with character too gross” (1.2.144) on her makes the fault more serious. The lovers have failed to create the appearance of legitimacy that would have cancelled the signs that Juliet has all too visibly erred before marriage. A strict observation system, designed to ensure the law be observed, is the base of Angelo’s authoritarian state.

  • 6  “To wake’, orig to watch, to keep vigil, derives from ME waken—pt wok, whence E woke, and pp waken(...)

10Consequently, the Duke’s substitute initiates the general surveillance atmosphere in which Measure for Measure is bathed. In act one scene two, Claudio’s reluctance to express what he is accused of lest speaking of it should “offend again” (1.2.128), shows the banality of spying. So does Lucio’s expression of surprise, a few lines below, that lechery should be “so look’d after” (1.2.133). Claudio’s reference to the fact the law is now “awake” in act one scene two (1.2.155), which Angelo takes up in act two scene two (2.2.94), also enhances that global surveillance is essential for the ruler to sustain authority. Etymologically, the word awake is close to “watching”.6 This suggests Angelo revives the law primarily by ensuring he sees everything.

11Angelo’s surveillance system, however, should not be reduced to spying techniques. His pattern of visual control consists of staging the execution of the sentence consequent to the law rather than the law itself. Measure for Measure abounds in explicit descriptions of the exemplary character of punishment. Lucio provides one in act 1 scene 4, when he states that the aim of Claudio’s sentence is “to make him an example” (1.4.68). Angelo’s decision concerning Claudio reflects the instruments of control of the pre-Enlightenment era, and more specifically what Foucault calls “the spectacle of the scaffold”. With this phrase, he describes the need for power to seek “a renewal of its effect in the spectacle of its individual manifestations” (Foucault, 57). Angelo thinks that leaders declaring themselves happy with the deterring quality of the law run the risk of losing their authority. He fears the ruler’s power will abate if citizens get used to the visual presence of the rod without ever having to fear its concrete effects. When he levels another criticism at the Duke’s rulership, his condemnation sounds like an advocation of the medieval method of command Foucault describes. In act one scene two, Claudio expresses his surprise at the unusual way Angelo has organised his punishment.

Claudio Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th’world?
Bear me to prison, where I am committed.
Provost I do it not in evil disposition,
But from Lord Angelo by special charge. (1.2.108-111)

12By immediately organising ‘ritual displays’ of the law’s consequences, the substitute expresses the exception he takes to the Duke’s strategies. Angelo’s perspective on authority, therefore, is in keeping with the control patterns Foucault ascribes to the pre-panoptic age. Indeed, before the panoptic era, the link between hyper-vision and power was not established.

13Finally, the play introduces a third angle on visual power, which refers to a much more elaborate type of surveillance. It consists in the Duke’s amendment of his former behaviour. This evolution results from the constant surveillance he exerts on the other characters for most of the play, thanks to which he learns about innovative power techniques.

Studying the ethical stakes of vision and surveillance in the early modern age

  • 7  I fully endorse Dollimore’s view of the play’s last lines as an expression that Isabella is an ind (...)

14For all those reasons, the play’s approach of surveillance is potentially transgressive. The evolution of the relationship between the Duke and Isabella illustrates this fact. With the main female protagonist, the spectators briefly trespass the protective precincts of the convent, in which Isabella is about to place herself under the sole supervision of God. As a result, the spectator’s gaze becomes virtually divine. Isabella, however, goes from the judging eye of god to the cheer and comfort of his substitute’s gaze, as the Duke’s final proposal of marriage symbolises.7 The play defines power as visual, and enacts the transfer of visual control from the eyes of god to the eyes of human beings. This shift has consequences on the visual patterns of the early modern age and on the ethical stakes they carry.

15The question of divine surveillance and of its place in protestant doctrine is the object of constant references throughout Measure for Measure. The play underlines that God occupies the uppermost position in a hierarchy of watchers extending from the divine to the base. It also reflects an evolution in societies that turns divine surveillance into a merely human prerogative. Angelo’s trajectory in the play illustrates this development. In the first scene of the first act, the Duke praises Angelo as a man with nothing to hide. As such, Vincentio can entrust him with the task of gazing on the citizens of Vienna to judge them. Like Hamlet, Angelo “know[s] not seems” (1.2.76). Nevertheless, his confidence that what he shows expresses what he is soon turns into a matter of conscience. This trait expresses the character’s superiority as a staunch Puritan. In his answer to the Duke’s words in act 1 scene 1, Angelo immediately asks for “some more test” of his “metal” (1.1.48). This reply suggests that only divine judgement can disclose what spiritual and concrete matter Angelo is made of. Besides, he wishes to sport this spotlessness to the world as undeniable evidence of valour. To take up the words in which James D. Fleming describes the Protestant theory of conscience, Angelo “submit[s] to the surveillance […] by socially opening [his] secret mind – making it everybody else’s place” (Fleming, 73).

16In his study, Fleming also describes an alternative perspective on conscience, which derives the right to secrecy from the notion of divine surveillance:

17As I have discussed, not even the most tutoristic casuistry denies individual inwardness. On the contrary, it guarantees such inwardness, precisely by way of exposing the mind to divine surveillance. Conscience is exactly and only what renders the created mind secret from all other created minds. Yet God’s indwelling eye, and only God’s indwelling eye, is what makes mind mind, and conscience conscience. The theory of conscience, in other words, predicates social secrecy (which it provides) on spiritual exposure (which it demands). (Fleming, 72)

18In the play, the character of Isabella exemplifies this view. The beginning of act one scene four introduces her wish to retire from the world to join the order of St Clare, one with the reputation for strictness. A clear surveillance logic underpins her decision. As Francisca reminds her of, Isabella has chosen to preserve her looks from the eyes of men to keep them for those of God. In Francisca’s line, the possibility of Isabella’s interaction with men is limited to either the visual or the oral, which implies that she may only have full sensual communication with the divine. Besides, inter-human contact is restricted by the chaperoning presence of the prioress, who seems to relay divine supervision down below:

When you have vow’d, you must not speak with men
But in the presence of the prioress;
Then, if you speak, you must not show your face;
Or if you show your face, you must not speak. (1.4.10-13)

19It is important to notice that Measure for Measure shatters both Isabella and Angelo in their respective creeds. Isabella’s encounter with Angelo eventually leads her to follow the Duke, despite her initial choice of a spiritual marriage with God. Angelo’s path is more tortuous than Isabella’s. However, it also ends in a broken bond with God’s observant gaze. In her first conversation with Angelo in act two, scene two, Isabella uses a clever argument against Angelo. She reminds the Puritan in him that his power to judge is nothing compared to God’s:

How would you be,
If He, which is the top of judgment, should
But judge you as you are? (2.2.75-7).

20Were Angelo exactly the Puritan he wants to show he is, this argument would win Isabella’s case. For the Duke, however, Angelo cultivates the appearance of austerity but hides lechery underneath. His reaction to Isabella’s presence exposes this feature. As Max Weber and Sam Whimster have explained, the pressure of divine surveillance induces Puritans to “exercise the strongest possible control over [their] behaviour” (Weber and Whimster, 16). In the circumstances the play describes, this is how Angelo should behave. Instead of that, he soon yields to temptation, and gives up self-exploration in order to embrace deceit. In act two, scene two, for instance, Angelo urges Isabella to come back the next day. A likely reason for delaying the encounter is the presence of the Provost, whom Angelo summoned to witness his good behaviour with the future nun. Angelo, however, decides to make advances to Isabella. The witness, originally a token of the ruler’s transparency, thus becomes an obstacle preventing Angelo from giving way to his darkest impulses. His desire to meet with Isabella in private elicits his lightning switch from well-advertised self-exploration to secret and concealment, thanks to which he keeps his shameful actions unknown.

21To save appearances, however, Angelo opens his troubled mind for the spectators to peek at. He does so in soliloquies about his qualms that sound like confessions. Through those speeches, Angelo offers himself to the spectators’ judgement, and drama perverts the confessional exercise. The Duke is at the origin of this change. His initial plan is a surveillance strategy. Vincentio wants to keep Angelo under watch once he is in power in order to expose his true self, but also to disclose the limitations of his governing strategies. As he unravels his plan, it gradually appears that the Duke substitutes himself to the divine with his probing of Angelo’s conscience. The Duke’s scheme works, yet it does not provoke the return to religious order. In act five, scene one, upon realising that he has been the victim of a trick, Angelo declares: “I perceive your Grace, like power divine,/ Hath looked upon my passes” (5.1.367-68). For Angelo, his trial is a perversion of divine judgement. To judge him, Vincentio usurped God’s place and scrutinised his soul, as the words “grace”, “passes” and “confession” underline. Meanwhile, Vincentio also aped God by becoming the ubiquitous observer of all the characters’ actions. Because it foregrounds divine watching, the play’s conclusion makes it necessary to look back at its plot and reassess the share of the Duke’s surveillance strategies in its ethical and aesthetical stakes.

Hyper-vision and over-information

22The Duke provokes and maintains the alternation of secrecy and exposure that characterises the play’s structure. In the first scene, his speech pairs the antithetic lexical fields of disclosure and concealment. The verb “to unfold”, for instance, appears twice in the scene, each time to suggest the object of revelation may be a mere appearance. To qualify his presentation of Angelo, the Duke also refers to elucidation:

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. (1.1.32-5)

  • 8  “Scope, skōpe, n. lit. that which one sees, spaceas far as one can see: room or opportunity for fr (...)

23Visibility is nothing without a spectator. Consequently, Angelo may shine light on himself just for his supposed virtues to shine forth. This suggests looking at what Angelo has chosen to display is not sufficient to probe him. On the contrary, it takes concealed spectatorship to know the man, and perhaps to expose him. In the first scene, an ironical threat in the Duke’s explanation of his course of action to Angelo hints at this strategy, when he declares: we “do look to know/ What doth befall you here” (1.1.57-8). The Duke plans to look at Angelo to know everything that happens to him and therefore to determine who he actually is. In the first act, Shakespeare thus establishes a connection between vision and knowledge. He presents the Duke as the vehicle of the surveillance schemes that will follow in the play. Simultaneously, he shows that the goal of the Duke’s spying is to discover the truth. In Measure for Measure, this surveillance pattern places the spectators level with the Duke and hence in an overinformed position. Nevertheless, surveillance is more than just a technique creating dramatic irony. The Duke’s surveillance of Angelo, in fact, is not only a trap against an enemy. It is also as a way for the Duke to watch himself through his substitute. Though his ubiquitous watching provides him with power over the other characters, it fits into a larger investigation, which concerns the functioning of power itself. In the first scene, the Duke emphasises that he makes Angelo play his “part” (1.1.41) to vicariously behold the ruler he has been, and to imagine the one he shall become. The knowledge the Duke seeks with his surveillance scheme goes beyond the traditional exploration of the thin divide between seeming and being. What is at stake is the precise study of the connection between vision and power. The “disguised ruler” topos in which the play’s surveillance pattern originates involves a mirror effect. The Duke, by watching Angelo, gains power over him. At the same time, he learns about his own past mistakes, and discovers what he should do to return as a more powerful ruler at the end of the play. The Duke’s attitude thus discloses the potency of hyper-vision. The characters’ use of the word “scope” summarises this feature. In the play, Shakespeare mostly employs the term in the meaning of “extent” or “room to act” (1.2 .119-20) or to design the range of action of those in command and their ability to turn their views into truths (1.1.64-6; 1.3.35-7). In all those cases, the notion relates to justice, as Angelo’s plea for objective judgement at 5.1.233-34 epitomises. Yet because of its etymology,8 “scope” associates this range of action with a range of vision. The term elaborates the assumption that extended visual perception may provide enhanced power, a hypothesis that Measure for Measure sets out to evaluate by turning all eyes to the Duke himself.

From liminal spectatorship to stage production

24The Duke experiments panopticism by placing himself in the position of watching a whole society from top to bottom. Nevertheless, even in the prison scenes, which necessarily evoke the repressive power of Bentham’s prison house to contemporary audiences, Vincentio’s visual aegis helps him save rather than punish his subjects. Besides, by endorsing the panoptic role of the one watching the many, the Duke discovers the power that lies in synopticism, a term coined by Thomas Mathiesen to describe inverted patterns in which mass audiences focus on a small group of individuals (Mathiesen, 99). For Gareth Palmer, within a synopticon, “we, the many, are witness to the crimes of the few thus reversing the symmetry of the gaze” (Palmer, 97). In the play, the Duke generates a synoptic pattern by placing Angelo under “millions of false eyes”: those of the Viennese citizens, but also those of the spectators. In his confession to the audience of act two, scene two, Angelo even behaves as if he were aware that the audience’s attention is focused on him. He treats the synoptic configuration as an opportunity to present himself as the victim of devilish temptation and therefore to alleviate the severity of his sin in the eyes of the spectators. As the play unravels, Angelo is more and more intensely submitted to this pattern, of which the final act is an archetypal instance.

25Simultaneously, observing Angelo’s predicament leads the Duke to overcome his own loathing of stage visibility. The play includes numerous moments in which Vincentio derives his privileged information status from the ability to watch the action, as if from the audience. He thus manipulates the spectators by deciding what they are to watch and therefore what they are to know. His intervention during the conversation between Claudio and Isabella in act three, scene one is a case in point. The Duke enters the stage at the most appropriate moment, which suggests he took his cue from the characters before interfering. His entering of the fray coincides with a change in his course of action. Halfway through the play, Vincentio switches from surveillance to stage direction.

26Complementarily, the Duke gradually realises that visibility will restore his abated might. The strong insistence on visual evidence that pervades act four, scene two illustrates this alteration. After line 120, Vincentio, still disguised as a friar, has the Provost read a letter sent by Angelo. The document bears Angelo’s official signature, and states that his orders must be “duly performed” (4.2.121). The conversation then switches to the case of Barnardine, whose guilt has been confirmed by “undoubtful proof” (4.2.135). That it is now “apparent” (4.2.136) justifies the Duke’s decision to have Barnardine executed instead of Claudio. This debatable move, he promises, will become understandable when he supplies a “manifested effect” (4.2.159). Finally, at the end of the scene, he crushes all remaining misgivings in the characters surrounding him by displaying “the hand and seal of the Duke” (4.2.191), in the belief that those visual signs of power will lead them to obey.

27The Duke’s plan in act three, scene one is an important stage in his evolution. To protect Isabella while simultaneously preserving order, the Duke resorts to the substituted bedmate trick. For practical reasons, the encounter between Angelo and Mariana is to happen in the dark and in silence. This specific atmosphere has a metaphorical quality. Indeed, darkness will keep the visual proof of the union from the other characters’ eyes. The Duke thus preserves the revelation that an “old contracting” (3.2.275) has been performed for act five. Besides, as Isabella’s comment reveals, the intercourse that solves the plot remains a matter of imagination: “The image of it gives me content already, and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection” (3.1.260-61). The image of the act remains unseen and in the dark. On the contrary, the Duke “produces” the resulting return to marital order in his final display of power.

28Act one, scene two also illustrates the manipulative power of showing. Claudio expresses his confidence that the “prone and speechless dialect” of his sister will move Angelo. Lucio builds his strategy on this remark. In act two, scene two, he directs Isabella in real time so that she obtains Angelo’s favours, and clarifies his plan in numerous asides. By directing Angelo’s gaze on Isabella, Lucio conducts a display of beauty that successfully achieves its manipulative effect. Angelo falls in love with Isabella, but with unexpected consequences. Besides, with the oxymoron “speechless dialect”, Claudio points to the rhetorical power of placing the right images at the right moment under someone’s eyes to alter their decision-making. The Duke gradually turns this principle into a full-scale method. A mere actress in Lucio’s hands, Isabella only briefly regains control over her destiny before becoming a puppet in the Duke’s show, as her admission in act four, scene three, shows: “I am directed by you” (4.3.136).

29The Duke’s addition of stage-producing qualities alongside his surveillance practices is a notable evolution from his disciplining pattern at the beginning of the play. By watching over other characters, the Duke does not only discover the power of surveillance. He also experiences the power of showing. Vincentio then organises performances to manipulate the characters. He first diverts the spectators’ eyes from himself to Angelo, to expose him as the villain of the piece and correlatively to present himself as the best possible ruler. He then structures his return so all eyes focus on him.

30Vincentio thus turns from liminal spectator, watching the events of the play as if from among the groundlings, to liminal director, acting from the areas bordering the stage to organise his final return to the proscenium. The surveillance schemes in which he engages lead to the play within the play of act five. Measure for Measure thus generates its theatrum mundi perspective by incorporating surveillance ingredients that combine power with watching and with showing. As a result, the surveillance component adds further complexity to the mise en abyme patterns Shakespeare experiments in other plays.

Aesthetical and metaphysical issues: refining the theatrum mundi cliché

  • 9  To Banu, “surveillance grants the spectator a status that is both Brechtian and Aristotelian” (Ban (...)

31As Georges Banu has shown in his study of the link between surveillance and drama, playwrights often include surveillance patterns to facilitate distancing effects and reflexivity.9 While this often leads to a “world as stage” perspective, the surveillance network of Measure for Measure creates the conditions for a comprehensive elaboration of the mediaeval cliché. This revaluation of the theatrum mundi motto affects Shakespeare’s conception of drama, his vision of the world, and his apprehension of their intertwining. In the play, this analytical quality stems from an implicit comparison between the scopic regime of surveillance and that of theatre.

32The characters constantly express the feeling that they are under supervision. This emphasis leads to another semantic ambiguity, which concerns watching. Repeating that the characters are being watched, in the diegetic meaning of the word, is a way of reminding the extradiegetic spectators that they contribute to the play’s surveillance atmosphere, simply by watching the show (Banu, 15-16). The device to which Shakespeare resorts in other works generates aesthetic distance and makes the play appear as a play rather than as reality. In Measure for Measure, however, surveillance creates distanciation in an innovative way. The surveillance backbone of the play does not only liken the spectator’s perception to spying on the characters. The nuance comes from the fact the Duke, while organising the various diegetic surveillance trends featured in the play, is simultaneously subjected to the spectators’ gaze. Vincentio invents tricks to put on a show of order and attempt to get closer to the divine. As he does so, the spectators realise that their superior watching position is also more than human in kind. While the Duke fashions a whole word in miniature according to his designs, the spectators are in the privileged position of watching his creative scheme.

33Consequently, Measure for Measure puts theatrical craftsmanship under surveillance. A specific use of the theatrical vocabulary reinforces this investigative purpose. The text often presents people as “characters”, and their actions as “performances”. This use of polysemy characterises the entire canon, in which it conveys that the world depicted on stage is nothing but drama. The same technique serves a slightly different purpose in Measure for Measure. In a society where visual evidence is so precious, reducing visual illusions to figments is a way of questioning the benefits of surveillance. If the world is indeed a stage, on which everything is appearance, true visual evidence does not exist. The Duke’s surveillance techniques give apparent objectivity to the visual proof he deems so important. In act five, he acts on this belief. In the end, however, the spectators know he has created nothing real, because they have followed his manoeuvring throughout. By placing the theatrical spectacle under surveillance, the play thus shows the scopic regime of drama creates a mere semblance of objectivity. Hence Shakespeare offers an objective view of theatre. In the dramatic regime, giving the spectators something to see is sufficient to make it exist. The Duke’s assertion that virtues are nonexistent if no one perceives them at 1.1.32-33 underlines this notion. So does Angelo’s allegory of act two, scene one:

The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t
Because we see it; but what we do not see,
We tread upon, and never think of it. (2.1.24-26)

34Consequently, Measure for Measure ascribes creative power to the gaze of the spectators rather than merely to the artist’s stroke. This modification has important consequences on Shakespeare’s study of the ethical stakes of artistic creation. Like many early modern artists, Shakespeare was aware that his dramatic practice induced him to create a believable world, and thereby to ape God’s creation. In Measure for Measure, however, the act of aping God is less a creative action than the adoption of a specific perspective. The play insists on the importance of the creative gaze in the theatrical process. As Harold C. Goddard has shown, Vincentio acts as a surveillant god throughout the play (Goddard, 58). This perspective suggests that man’s Promethean fault lies in replicating God’s total surveillance, rather than just in imitating God’s creative actions.

35Isabella epitomises this standpoint. Her status as a nun to be makes her the most likely character to advocate that the faithful should preserve the hierarchy between the human and the superhuman. Her first attempt in this direction occurs during her encounter with Angelo in act 2, scene 2. It consists of a violent tirade against his stealing of a power he should not wield:

                                     Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder; nothing but thunder.
Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak,
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured – 
His glassy essence – like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal. (2.2.111-24)

36To put man in his right place below the divine, Isabella first creates an image of usurpation that is consistent with the play’s take on substitution. She places man in a heavenly location from which he can throw down thunderbolts on mere mortals. Complementarily, this high up position endows man with the ability to see everything, and therefore to punish even minor offences. In the second part of Isabella’s speech, this unreasonable use of divine surveillance goes back under the thoughtful supervision of heaven. This reversal sends man back down from the position of ubiquitous watcher to that of humble watched entity. This change of status leads to Isabella’s conclusion about man’s “glassy essence” as an “angry ape”. At the end of the speech, the traditional fault of aping God significantly involves vision. Man’s pride does not only induce him to think he can imitate the gods by interfering with their creation or by indulging in the creation of illusions himself. It also consists of deluding himself that he is in the position of watching everything. Isabella accuses man of using this superior status to direct the moves of fellow human beings. Meanwhile, he forgets that he is a mere actor on the world’s stage, and that angels mock his overweening temper. In keeping with this criticism, the reference to glass combines the ideas of reflection and transparency. It means not only that man is a mere image, but also that he is wrong to think he has total clarity of vision.

37In act two, scene four, Isabella elaborates on this vision of pride. She applies it to women, declaring they are as frail “as the glasses where they view themselves, / Which are as easy broke as they make forms” (2.4.124-25), and adds that “men their creation mar/ In profiting by them” (2.4.126-27). Women foolishly consider their reflection in the mirror as stable and enduring. They are frail for being unable to tell the true essence of being from illusory images. Such confidence in their appearance makes them a perfect receptacle for male pride to exert itself. Isabella translates the manipulation of men by women into visual terms. In her view, men impose an image upon women to make them their possessions. Through Isabella, the play once again describes the scope of man’s actions in scopic terms. By finally accepting to be “directed” by the Duke, Isabella proves the applicability of her vision of pride. Her decision, however, also casts an ambiguous light on the Duke’s behaviour throughout the play.

  • 10  In the present volume, Sophie Chiari’s analysis of the ambiguities of the medias res opening to ac (...)

38The ultimate ambiguity of the Duke’s character adds up to his inclination for all types of surveillance practices. The association makes Shakespeare’s expression of his doubts about the legitimacy of dramatic practice even more complex. The surveillance atmosphere of the play leads to a final performance that is strictly under the Duke’s control. This outcome questions the clarity the overseeing gaze offers, which parallels the spectator’s reception of the play. An important vehicle of doubt is the Duke’s equivocal success at the end. The Duke’s plan enables him to divert a woman from her religious calling. It also helps him conceal the possible shadowy areas in his personality which Lucio points to in act three, scene two (3.2.115-48).10 Complementarily, qualifying perspectives minimise the power the Duke achieves through his mastery of vision and visibility. The Duke uses the look of death to preserve Claudio’s life and ensure his own power. His directorial interventions lead him to turn death into life on stage, which is a strong expression of his desire to play god. For the spectators, however, this creation of dramatic life is no more real than the creation of dramatic death. Only embracing a credulous perspective on the stage endows the characters with life.

39For this reason, the Duke is on an equal footing with Prospero in The Tempest. Both characters allow Shakespeare to explore the possibly forbidden sides of artistic practice. With Prospero, the wizard, Shakespeare focuses on nearly magic creative actions leading the main character to exert authority over an island that is a world in miniature. Through the Duke, who renews his power thanks to a combination of observation and stage direction skills, the part of dramatic creation that consists of warping the gaze receives specific attention. At the same time, Measure for Measure compares two kinds of surveillance, the Duke’s and God’s. Vincentio’s surveillance endows him with the ability to create a distorted vision of reality at the scale of his own microcosm, i.e. Viennese society. Divine surveillance, on the contrary, is the only kind of vision that gives the power to judge and rule. The Tempest evokes the presence of a greater creator above. Similarly, Measure for Measure reminds its spectators that the authority the Duke derives from his ubiquity is a pale equivalent of the surveillance which God effects on men and women. The title of the play confirms the presence of this moralising quality. It evokes the Old Testament, and the watchful eye of a wrathful God hanging over human beings, ready to punish them for their faults. Even though the Duke is the one who uses the phrase, divine judgement also applies to him, with all the more strength for his propensity to imitate God’s watching. In act five, scene one, the apparently anecdotal revelation that he has “confess’d” Mariana (5.1.524), and therefore probed her soul, emphasises the Duke’s overreaching. By dressing up as a friar, Vincentio committed the sin he had exposed in Angelo. He thought ostensible religiosity would endow him with the divine right to scan the conscience of his citizens. The play conclusively underlines that the Duke did not so much usurp the divine power to create illusions as another brand of Promethean might, endowing him with the ability to see more than mere human beings should.


  • 11  “When Jaques in As You Like It says, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare compares the two reali (...)

40Richard Courtney has shown that the theatrum mundi metaphor works both ways.11 By comparing play after play the stage to a world and the world to a stage, Shakespeare examines fundamental questions about theatrical practice which are related to issues of power and divinity. Thanks to its focus on surveillance, Measure for Measure plays a crucial role in the global self-reflexivity of Shakespeare’s works. The Duke’s dominant spectatorial position places him at the threshold between the world and the stage. The character produces a mise en abyme pattern that stands out in the canon through its implicit comparison of the scopic regime of surveillance with the visual apparatus of the theatre. By combining diegetic and extradiegetic watching patterns, Measure for Measure suggests that theatrical representation apes God’s creation, but also exposes the theatrical scopic regime as a perversion of divine surveillance. The play, therefore, clarifies how drama finds anchorage in the surrounding reality. With Measure for Measure, the early modern stage becomes part of a gigantic surveillance experiment, in which the whole world is watching, and the whole world is being watched.

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Anonymous. Dir. Roland Emmerich. UK. Columbia Pictures, 2011.

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Breight, Curtis C. Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1996.

Courtney, Richard. Shakespeare’s World of Death: The Early Tragedies, Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1995.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “Transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure.” Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, Ed. Jonathan Dollimore. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994: 72-87.

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1  My translation.

2  In his chapter, the author also insists on “the crucial political function of ecclesiastical surveillance” (Breight, 107). Finally, Breight establishes the connection between religious enforcement of belief and political obedience: “The government’s enforcement of belief was an attempt to compel political obedience, since those who ‘refused’ church of England services also potentially or actually ‘refused’ the established order. [...] Ascertainment of religious conformity thus amounts to national political surveillance.” (Breight, 107-108). This perspective elicits the possible surveillance implication of the Duke’s choice to disguise himself as a friar.

3  The term Panopticon refers to one of the main concepts of surveillance studies. In the glossary to his Overview of the discipline, David Lyon expounds the panoptic principle and synthesises how the structure is generally used: “Panopticon is the Greek-based neologism applied to Bentham’s 1793 diagram for a new penitentiary whose architecture ensured the visibility of inmates to an unseen observer. The term became the focus for theoretical debates concerning surveillance due both to Foucault’s focus on the Panopticon and the realization that electronic technologies apparently permit panoptic possibilities beyond Bentham’s dreams” (Lyon, 202-203).

4  In the play, rhetoric is also evaluated according to its propensity to act as a way to power. Nevertheless, as Mickaël Popelard shows in the present volume, the characters who resort to words for conviction mainly fail to have their ways. Consequently, Measure for Measure balances visual control against the relative failure of rhetorical techniques.

5  In his chapter about Bentham’s plan for a new type of prison house, Foucault mentions “the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” (Foucault, 201-202).

6  “To wake’, orig to watch, to keep vigil, derives from ME waken—pt wok, whence E woke, and pp waken, whence E woken (now less common than waked)—OE wacan (vi), to wake, prob. Influenced by the cognate ME wakien—pt and pp waked—from OE wacian, var of OE waeccan, to be awake, to watch: cf OFris wakia, OS wakōn, OHG wahhēn, MHG-G wachen, Go wakan, ON vaka. ‘To wake’ is a doublet of ‘to watch’” (Partridge 3699).

7  I fully endorse Dollimore’s view of the play’s last lines as an expression that Isabella is an independent spirit who has finally been disciplined: “We see in Isabella’s subjection a conflict within the patriotic order which subjects: the renunciation which the Church sanctions, secular authority refuses. The latter wins and it is Isabella’s fate to be coerced back into her socially and sexually subordinate position – at first illicitly by Angelo, then legitimately by the Duke who ‘takes’ her in marriage.” (Dollimore, 83).

8  “Scope, skōpe, n. lit. that which one sees, spaceas far as one can see: room or opportunity for free outlook; space for action: the end before the mind; intention. [L. scopos, Gr. Skopos—skeptomai, to look, to view]” (Donald and Chambers, 453).

9  To Banu, “surveillance grants the spectator a status that is both Brechtian and Aristotelian” (Banu, 27). My translation.

10  In the present volume, Sophie Chiari’s analysis of the ambiguities of the medias res opening to act one, scene three confirms that the Duke’s life has many secret areas, and that he is probably not as uninterested in women as he wishes to appear.

11  “When Jaques in As You Like It says, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ Shakespeare compares the two realities in a double metaphor: life is like a theatre and theatre is like life. And this is the metaphor Shakespeare uses throughout his plays” (Courtney, 20).

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Sébastien Lefait, « “Millions of false eyes / Are stuck upon thee.” The scope of surveillance in Measure for Measure »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 15 | 2013, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2013, consulté le 23 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Sébastien Lefait

Sébastien Lefait est Maître de conférences d’anglais à l’université de Corse à Corte. Il est l’auteur d’articles sur le cinéma, sur les pièces de Shakespeare, et sur les nouvelles formes de l’adaptation cinématographique. Il a récemment codirigé un ouvrage intitulé In Praise of Cinematic Bastardy (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) et est aussi l’auteur d’une monographie intitulée Surveillance on Screen: Monitoring Contemporary Films and Television Programs (Lanham, Md: The Scarecrow Press, 2012). Ses travaux actuels concernent l’utilisation de la surveillance dans les séries télévisées, au théâtre, et dans les adaptations d’œuvres littéraires à l’écran.
Sébastien Lefait is a lecturer in English at the University of Corsica in Corte. He has published articles about films, about Shakespeare’s plays, and about the new forms of film adaptation. He has recently co-edited a volume entitled In Praise of Cinematic Bastardy (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012). He is also the author of Surveillance on Screen: Monitoring Contemporary Films and Television Programs (Lanham, Md: The Scarecrow Press, 2012). His current research focuses on the use of surveillance in TV series and in the theatre and on the assets of surveillance in the context of film adaptation.Université de Corse / CREA (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre)

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