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‘To sin in loving virtue’: desire and possession in Measure for Measure

Ewan Fernie


This essay offers a startling new reading of Shakespeare’s Angelo as a paradoxical if not tragic hero who discovers in his sudden and inexorable impulse to rape a nun in the dark that desire is always more-or-less demonic – even, and perhaps especially, when it is most elevated and for what is most sacred and rightly lovable.  The burden of Angelo’s tragic knowledge is that we ‘sin in loving virtue’, that we are more like the carrion than the violet in the sun, that we ‘corrupt with virtuous season’.  Measure for Measure emphasises we cannot but desire as a self and in a body, to the effect that the very otherness we honour in desire we immediately want to compromise by enjoying it for our own.  The paper will argue that though it is Angelo who emblematises this, it is no less true of Isabella; and it is especially depressingly and irredeemably the case with the Duke.

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  • 1   Kierkegaard, 114.

Commonly, one hears little about the demoniacal, notwithstanding that this field, particularly in our time, has a valid claim to be explored, and notwithstanding that the observer, in case he knows how to get a little rapport with the demon, can, at least occasionally, make use of almost every man for this purpose.  As such an explorer Shakespeare is and constantly remains a hero. – Søren Kierkegaard1

  • 2  Stevenson, letter to J. A. Symonds, from Skeryvore, Bournemouth, Spring 1886, pp. 127-8, appendix.

I divined… the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of to-day, which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show.  To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves enter, and are tortured and purified. – Robert Louis Stevenson2

  • 3  I initially introduced this reading of Measure for Measure in McKenzie and Papadopoulou.

1I’ve just written a book about the demonic, and I want (in this lecture) to engage with Angelo (Fernie).3 Like Kierkegaard, I believe that the demonic is not something we can keep at arms length. Like Stevenson, I believe that we should not lean back from the troubling intimacies of literature, but rather that they can be ethically and critically revealing.  

  • 4  For an alternative reading of this aspect of the play, see Lukacher, “Razing the Sanctuary: Measur (...)

2Angelo’s career points specifically to a perverse and wrecking covetousness hidden in desire – even desire that could or should be sacred.  His fate is to be more like the carrion than the violet in the sun.  “He corrupts with virtuous season.”4

  • 5  References to this play are to Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons.

3And yet, Shakespeare makes Angelo curiously engaging and attractive.  His name and dramatic fall associate him with the demonic, and quite specifically with a fallen angel.  His absolutist legalism of the beginning of the play has a religious flavour, which contrasts with merely worldly accommodations. From the point-of-view of the world, Angelo is radically deformed and dehumanised – an ‘ungenitured agent’, who urinates congealed ice, and wasn’t begotten by the ‘downright way of creation’ (3.2.92, 97, 147).5But, in a play which also affords the view through the grille of the convent on a dispiritingly corrupted society, such palpably imagined weirdness has its own mysterious charisma and allure.  Who is this Angelo, this straitened stranger among men? His seeming transcendence of mortal conditions might just be the mark of sainthood.  By the end of the play he is an angel with horns.  Guilty (as he thinks) of the hurried rape of a nun in the dark, he laments that though you can write ‘good angel’ on the devil’s horns, they remain the devil’s crest (2.4.15-17).  And yet, Angelo isn’t left in completely demonic ruins; a better nature burns in his self-condemnation – and the Devil himself after all remains a fallen angel, so there is scope within an angelic name and nature for a fall.  Nor is it the case that Angelo just falls into the non-being and privation of Good which characterises the orthodox Christian conception of Evil.  Throughout his reversals in Measure for Measure Angelo’s ambivalent intensity remains his distinguishing feature, and this endues him with life.

4And, for me at least, a corresponding magnetism.  

  • 6  Reference from the Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2008).

5Angelo and the nun he supposedly rapes, Isabella, are together the most spiritually ambitious characters in the play.  Their uncompromising opposition to sex doesn’t much impress liberal criticism but the play reveals their shared tendency to violent chastity as itself a form of libido, and one characterised by superior energy.  So these two, puritanical judge and nun, are also the most flammable, the sexiest characters in Measure for Measure.  Moreover, it is Angelo, of all the characters in the play, who falls farthest and hardest, he who is convinced he is damned and begs only for death.  But he’s much to be preferred to the play’s putative victor, that self-saving pragmatist Duke Vincentio – who deliberately sets Angelo up for a fall in order that he might return to the polity he originally failed as its saviour.  Compared with him Angelo goes out in a blaze of demonic glory.  Indeed, as he coldly engineers Angelo’s exposure, the disguised Vincentio says with a shrug, ‘Let the devil / Be sometime honoured for his burning throne’ (5.1.288-9).  It’s a form of pious sarcasm but, given Angelo’s superior dramatic intensity, it also demands to be taken straight.  The line even betrays a shimmer of erotic possibility by resonating with the greatest sexual epiphany in Shakespeare.  ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne / Burned on the water…’ (Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2.196 ff.).6   

6It is possible to construe the love of Measure’s most mainstream romantic couple as a wholesomely organic foil to the brothel-haunting sexuality of the play.

Your brother and his lover have embraced;
As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry. (1.4.40-4)

7And these are indeed beautiful lines, but the truth is that Measure is not otherwise much interested in Claudio and Juliet.  And, for all their organic wholesomeness, the passage strangely lacks energy.  It’s all about afterwards – the satisfaction of passion or life.  It seems to be gesturing towards that sort of ordinary life where, say, Romeo and Juliet marry, have kids and get fat!  And while there is a kind of knockabout warmth and kindness expressed by the Viennese sex workers, all the sexual heat is generated in an abstract argument between a self-castrating lawman and a novice nun: ‘She speaks, and ’tis such sense/ That my sense breeds with it’ (2.2.146-7).  That a brother’s life depends on this contributes extra force.

8The explanation to us worldly moderns must seem obvious: sublimation.  What’s interesting about sublimation in Measure is that it makes for better sex.  But we think we can deal with sublimation.  And in fact something much more disturbing is going on, as Angelo reveals in this magnificent soliloquy:

Isabella At what hour tomorrow
Shall I attend your lordship?
Angelo At any time ’fore noon.
Isabella Save your honour.
                    [Exeunt Isabella, Lucio and Provost]

Angelo From thee: even from thy virtue.
What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault, or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she: nor does she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there?  Oh fie, fie, fie,
What dost thou or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? Oh, let her brother live:
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her
That I desire to hear her speak again
And feast upon her eyes?  What is’t I dream on?
Oh cunning enemy that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue.  Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.  Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled, and wondered how. (2.2.166-91)

9There is some desublimation in this. And there can scarcely be a more frightening and humiliating testimony to the imperative and shattering force of repressed desire than the image of this punctilious man talking his would-be rape victim through their anticipated assignation twice.

Isabella He hath a garden circummured with brick,
Whose western side is with a vineyard backed;
And to that vineyard is a planchèd gate,
That makes his opening with this bigger key.
This other doth command a little door
Which from the vineyard to the garden leads.
There have I made my promise, upon the heavy
Middle of the night to call upon him.
Duke But shall you on your knowledge find this way?
Isabella I have ta’en a due and wary note upon’t.
With whispering and most guilty diligence
In action all of precept, he did show me
The way twice o’er. (4.1.25-37)

10It all evokes Angelo very vividly – this fastidious man with the sweat and gum of pure lust on his brow.  And let’s not forget the victim he has so carefully instructed in her coming rape is a novice nun, one who would expressly forswear carnality.  

11And yet, the most terrifying thing about Angelo’s soliloquy is not, I’d submit, the return of the repressed, nor even its terrible intensification, but rather the revelation of the demonic corruptibility of desire as such even in its most virtuous forms.  Angelo doesn’t want Isabella because he can see the curve of a beautiful body under her cassock.  Nor is it even that he can see through her cassock to the desire it masks and disavows and therefore perhaps radically inflames.  There’s nothing so vulgar or predictable in the desire he expresses.  Angelo really is interested in Isabella’s virtue – in the soliloquy quoted, he alludes to it three times, comparing it, in Spenserian vein, with sunshine; he’s interested in her modesty, her saintliness. His desire for her channels and expresses even as it soils a metaphysical hunger for the Good.  

12‘To sin in loving virtue.’

13Yes, there’s the point!  And it takes us beyond familiar psychoanalytic categories.  

14There’s great paradoxical pathos in Angelo’s prayer to be saved from Isabella’s goodness.  He’s tortured by the fact that, having waste ground enough, he desires to raze that sanctuary and pitch his evils there, even as that torture further rouses his desire. We might think he wants her out of spiritual ressentiment and hatred of the Good.   He might very well resent any rival claim to goodness since he knows, after breaking off his engagement with Mariana, he can’t really measure up.  But his foulness truly honours Isabella’s virtue – or the virtue he sees in her: it doesn’t much matter here whether he’s right; what matters is his sincerity.  He desires “her foully for those things which make her good” (2.2.174-75).  He is the victim of a desire which simultaneously discloses him at his best (venerating virtue) and his worst (venturing in that very veneration to defile it). A leering Satan is seen here baiting his hook with a saint in order to catch a saint.  It raises the question as to whether our purest and most sacred feelings can ever be free of demonic elements.  For love itself – perhaps the last touchstone of humanist criticism – is a temptation here, even love of what is highest and most rightly lovable.  

15But what sins in loving virtue?  Partly it’s sex. For what conditions these thoughts uttered in soliloquy is Angelo-the-future-rapist’s exposed consideration of the sex-act: his vivid tasting of what it would be – what it will be – to fuck Isabella (I apologise for the obscenity but no euphemism will truly express the case). Angelo wants to even as he recognises that sex is horribly at variance what he wants of or from her: her spiritual virtue.  Of course, he’s still partly being a puritan, and yet his agony poses a real and hard and maybe even tragic question about what sex might be beyond idealisation.  Even if we object that there is no sex beyond idealisation, that sex is the means by which lovers summon each other into bodily personhood and presence, a wrecking consciousness of the brutality of sex is never far away.  In Angelo’s soliloquy, sex grossly obtrudes into religious desire and ruins it, pitching our evils in the razed sanctuary.  But perhaps there is always a religious, in the sense of metaphysical, ambition in sex, to which it is tragically unsuited as vehicle, to the effect that sex always promises but cannot get what it wants; and so we want more and more sex.  Sex is as a bull in a china shop in Angelo’s speech, pathetically, inevitably ruining what it wants.  Yet all of this, perhaps, only makes sex more sexy as an approach to the truth of our tragically disintegral condition.

  • 7  Dostoevsky, 715-38.

16And there’s more, for Angelo comes to grief not so much on the rocks of sex, as on something which is active in but irreducible to sex, something much more basic than sex: this is where we come up against the possessive element in all desire.  For isn’t even desire of the most rarefied sort in some sense possessive?    Can we conceive of the Holy of Holies without desiring to enter it, or otherwise hug it to ourselves, at least in imagination?  And must not such an entrance, or seizure, corrupt its sacred otherness?  That’s why Dostoevsky’s paradisal ‘dream of a ridiculous man’ is infected and ultimately ruined by the mere presence of the dreamer.7

17I recall a haunting dream from my own childhood, where I was running, in a panic, down a white corridor, trying false doors which opened hopelessly onto solid white walls.  Finally, I was able to pass through a door, finding myself in a strange but beautiful land, a pastoral world full of tall and twisting tree-like forms, washed in extraordinary colour.  It was populated by slender, tall and soulful rabbit-like beings who went upright on two legs.

18Well, they did till I arrived. Because when I had, they all instantly started to crumple with pain and die.  And there was no way back into the corridor….

19“Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary / And pitch our evils there?” (2.2.171-72)  Such is the temptation to profane.  What makes profanation demonic is that it depends on knowledge of the Good, to which it constitutes negative testimony.  The fact that profanation knows the Good brings it in range of spiritual sympathy but at the same time rules such sympathy out of court – for how, given that it knows the Good, could it so raze and defile that sanctuary – how could it?  Angelo is more sympathetic because he experiences this violating impulse as an irresistible and self-estranging mystery. “What dost thou or what art thou, Angelo?” (2.2.173) He is possessed by desire; he doesn’t coldly choose to raze the sanctuary like, say, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. But the real horror in Measure for Measure is the sneaking suspicion that we can’t notraze the sanctuary. We can’t simply keep Angelo at arm’s length.  To sin in loving virtue: what is whispered here is that there’s a flaw in desire as such which responds sensuously and sharply to the vivid, resplendent otherness of what it beholds but simultaneously moves against it, to compromise it and possess it for its own.

20Of course, though Isabella seems pure to Angelo, this quality in desire which hurts or soils both the other and the soul or self infects her too.  She much less consciously reflects Angelo’s experience of inevitable profanation in these infamous lines:

The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame. (2.4.101-104)

21The glistening wounds and pining for death suggest martyrology, hinting, like the ‘ungenitured agent’ (3.2.167-68) urinating ‘congealed ice’ (3.2.106-107), at a desire and subjectivity not of this world. They might be the badge or stigmata of sainthood but for the cruel fact that they evoke exactly such a physically relished yielding to shame as they are defined against. The thrill inhering in such deliciously anticipated impressions of whips, and the sensuous self-satisfaction of rubious ornamentation, amply demonstrates the world and the flesh returning in their disavowal.  But the irony here is tragic, and Isabella, like Angelo, not simply its victim, much as we might like to enjoy the humiliation of their pride.  For what would a non-possessive desire be like?  What would it mean to desire something without identifying one’s self and pleasure with it?  How could such a thing even be desirable? Eastern doctrines of non-attachment may come in here, but perhaps one advantage of the Christian tradition with its doctrine of incarnation is the justice it does to the erotically and ethically complicated fact that we always desire in and as a self and body, to the effect that as Measure instructs us the very otherness we honour in desire we want immediately to compromise by enjoying it as ours. Angelo’s and Isabella’s spiritual predicament is that they are each inspired by a lovely vision of that which exceeds mere selfish life and condemned, brutally or subtly, one way or another, to kill it in the cradle.

22The rape of a nun Angelo does not quite commit is the most concentrated and terrible image of the perverse paradox of desire that is the burden of the play’s tragic knowledge.  But before Angelo falls, and leaving his history with Mariana aside, his attitude to the Good is already a guiltily possessive one: “My gravity, / Wherein – let no man hear me – I take pride” (2.4.9-10; my emphasis). We have seen that Isabella too enjoys virtue by identifying with it – as her own – in emotionally complicated fantasies of godly debasement.  In cooler mode she says, “I have spirit to do any thing that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit”, and the folding of ‘spirit’ into ‘my spirit’ here as well as the note of purse-lipped pedantry bespeak a horribly proud self-arrogation of the Good (3.1.197-8).  But the play’s cheapest and most conspicuous rape of goodness is surely the Duke’s.  At the curtain, remember, Vincentio was full of melancholy feelings of guilt and failure as regards the anarchy in Vienna.  His trick, and admittedly it’s impossible to say that he consciously knows what he’s doing, is to install Angelo as his deputy precisely because he doubts him.  Then when Angelo messes up, this enables Vincentio’s moral and political triumph, and thorough evasion of his own guilt.  Angelo is Vincentio’s fall guy, and Vincentio’s forgiveness of Angelo is callow and thoroughly incidental to his process of exculpating himself. Worse than that, he has the gall to clothe himself in the mantle of a saviour.  And then to take the body of the nun which his Deputy has failed to obtain.  The difference between Vincentio and the other characters I have considered is that whereas Angelo and Isabella are powerfully possessed by that which they want to possess, and thus completely abandon themselves to their obsessions, Vincentio is just a cynic.

23Lucio has his number. He is a habitual user of prostitutes and though it’s theoretically possible to use prostitutes passionately, ecstatically, even in fear and trembling, here such behaviour is precisely revealing of one who refuses to be possessed by what he possesses.  Lucio recognises Vincentio as just the same sort of bloke, testifying, for instance, that the Duke would “mouth with a beggar though she smelt of brown bread and garlic” (3.2.176-77).  But Vincentio scapegoats Lucio at the end of the play.  When he decrees that Lucio must marry Kate Keepdown, a prostitute by whom he has a child, this ensures that Lucio henceforward will be possessed by that which he took so cheaply.  It’s astonishingly hypocritical.  Not least because Lucio conspicuously and surprisingly did honour the separateness of Vincentio’s own intended, Isabella, which Vincentio now spectacularly fails to honour when seeking her hand in marriage.  At the gate of the convent, Lucio  referred to Isabella as “a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement an immortal spirit” (1.4.34-5).  Nuns are by definition ‘separates’, and later Angelo’s anguished desire for Isabella agonisingly worshipped that very separateness which he would prevail upon and defile.  There is an anguished ethical dignity in this compared with the casual arrogance of Vincentio’s throwaway proposal.  In his ethical grandstanding at the end of the play, Vincentio just assumes goodness for himself, and thereby completely squanders it; and then, in an absurdly premature equivalent gesture, just takes, or at least wants to take, the nun as well.  Talk about a would-be rapist.  It’s as if he doesn’t really become a subject of desire at all, because he does not sufficiently recognise the space desire posits between itself and what it desires.  This is partly true of Isabella in her priggishness, but her extraordinary spiritual ambition does at the same time measure out that space. In the end, the dissipated image of Angelo raping a nun in the dark returns to haunt Measure for Measure as its deepest truth, but it is Vincentio who is doing the raping in the guise not of a tormented angel with horns but of a complacent husband. Angelo may entertain sensationally extraordinary desires, but Shakespeare doesn’t let more ordinary ones off the hook. And this is where the play’s moral diagnosis threatens almost literally to come home.

24I am not a rapist (not a sentence normally called for in literary criticism).  But Measure for Measure troubles this admittedly minimal and unimpressive moral assertion. My life is ordinary and law-abiding but Shakespeare seems to link it to Angelo’s extreme experience, discovering under also my cloak of relative decency and decorum a gross and criminal guilt. We are less equipped than was Shakespeare’s day to recognise the general resonance of Angelo’s weirdness.  It would have given Luther no trouble at all. The following, from his Commentary on Galatians, could practically be a gloss on or amplification of Measure for Measure:

  • 8  Luther, 143.

So it happeneth at length to all justiciaries, who being drunken with the opinion of their own righteousness, do think, when they are out of temptation, that they are beloved of God, and that God regardeth their fastings, their prayers, and their will-works, and that for the same he must give unto them a singular crown in heaven.  But when that thundering, lightning, fire, and that hammer which breaketh in pieces the rocks, that is to say, the law of God, cometh suddenly upon them, revealing unto them their sin, the wrath and judgement of God, then the selfsame thing happened unto them which happened to the Jews standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.8

25What happened on Sinai was that, in Luther’s words:

[T]he children of Israel did behold the horrible sight of the mount smoking and burning, the black clouds, and the lightnings flashing up and down in this thick darkness, and heard the sound of the trumpet blowing long and waxing louder and louder; and moreover when they heard the thunderings and lightnings, they were afraid, and standing afar off they said unto Moses: ‘We will do all things willingly, so that the Lord speak not unto us, lest that we die, and this great fire consume us.  Teach thou us, and we will hearken unto thee’ [Exod., 20:19; Deut. 5: 24 ff.].

26Luther comments:

  • 9  Luther,142.

I pray you, what did their purifying, their white garments, their refraining from their wives, and their holiness profit them?  Nothing at all. There was not one of them that could abide this presence of the Lord in his majesty and glory: but all being amazed and shaken with terror, fled back as if they had been driven by the devil.  For God is a consuming fire, in whose sight no flesh is able to stand.9

27We don’t live in such searing proximity to truth; I don’t anyway.  Luther evokes a massive panorama and a proto-universal experience of existential guilt.  But it’s Shakespeare’s intimate portrayal of Angelo’s tragedy of desire which has the power to get under my skin and disturb my moral self-conceit.  It’s Angelo whom I recognise.

28It’s true he starts out from somewhere beyond sympathy (but isn’t that somewhere we all have stood?). As Eric Mallin wrote in response to an earlier draft of this, Angelo is like a visiting spirit which has taken flesh, which has in turn taken him.  Angelo is dead in the beginning of the play, or at least not fully alive.

Ever till now
When men were fond, I smil’d, and wondered how. (2.2.186-87)

  • 10  Quoted in Lohse, 70-1.

29But that ‘now’ changes everything. As the rhyme indicates, it undoes Angelo’s weird distinction.  He is brought to recognise he is just like others.  But the resonance, equally, flows the other way, which is much less acknowledged.  All others are, equally, just like him – and never more so than at the inception of rape.  ‘Now’ stands for the tender, vulnerable and ambivalent induction into desire which everyone experiences, not just once, but again and again. As we have seen, Angelo’s experience lays bare desire as the most intense experience of the inviolable autonomy of another person and the simultaneous impulse to destroy that autonomy by means of violent possession. “To sin in loving virtue” (2.2.183). His fate involves not just an assault on a nun, but also a terribly condensed experience of spiritual life and death. Angelo’s is the agony of a still-born soul, born in the inception of a virtuous love but born dead because of the attempted rape this synonymously inspires. Of course we don’t all fall for nuns, but any love is virtuous in its cherishing of another’s inimitable separateness, which desire indissociably acts against.  And if the grim ambivalence of love forms the basis of Angelo’s solidarity with other men, we have seen that Isabella shows that it is not just a male problem, for she cannot love her God without loving Him as her own.    Luther was on to it.  He developed a new definition of sin as Curvitas, writing ‘Our nature has been so deeply curved in upon itself because of the viciousness of original sin… it not only turns the finest gifts of God Himself to achieve these aims, but it also seems to be ignorant of this very fact, that in acting so iniquitously, so perversely, and in such a depraved way, it is even seeking God for its own sake’.10 Measure for Measure describes the soul’s experience of spoiling sanctity, including its own, the soul’s unavoidable experience of spoiling itself.  It is this which the playemblematises as a would-be-good man raping a nun, an X-ray image it reveals at the heart of political, legal and religious life and, in the end, also in the more sinisterly everyday, domestic shape of a complacent husband making a move on his bride.

30Angelo is a scapegoat, and not just for Vincentio and Isabella.  He is also a revealing mirror and, again, not just for Vincentio and Isabella. This is easy enough to take in general terms but I am not a rapist!  And yet, Measure seems to compel confession, not so much in the gut-spilling and self-disclosing as the spiritually serious sense.  And the confession it compels is of a horrible failure to love, a deeply ingrained and systematic practice of rape in moral and spiritual life. I am not a rapist, not in the ordinary sense of the word, but nor for that matter is Angelo, and is he not absolutely one? The play seems to turn on me here.  For, as we have seen, Angelo is a rapist not just in relation to Isabella, but also in his usage of the Good for his own purposes, his arrogation of a meticulous probity in the interest of his own self-security, precedence and pride.  And am I not guilty likewise? Isn’t it the case that everything I admire and desire to honour for itself I also energetically covet for myself?  Even, weirdly, as myself.  Is it literature (or Shakespeare) I profess? Or is it – when all is said and done – me?  Oh fie, fie, fie!  Isn’t everything a Trojan horse for self-assertion?  So, then – demonic sneer – shall we desire to raze the sanctuary and pitch our evils there? Yes, yes, that too, even the holiest of affections! My mother. My wife.  My child.  My God.  There’s no twisting off the coil. For these very ideas unmasking self-assertion are themselves me and mine, to the effect that this supposed attack on my own integrity in fact slyly reinforces it.  Angelo seems clearer and more honest than I am able to be, and it moves me to a kind of love – though even this is no doubt partly an opportunistic appropriation of Angelo’s virtue of moral honesty in an attempt to save my self-esteem.  But then part of what Angelo sees and shows is that there is nothing other than such ambivalence.  I find myself wanting to address him personally.

31Yes Angelo, me too, me especially, mea culpa.  

32And yet, as soon as I do there bubbles up in me a fugitive and half embarrassed hope, and one which seems to me not to be wholly self-serving.  For Angelo’s metanoia involves a kind of theology of desire, one which sees that sex and ethics and religion are all part of the life of desire, one which could be spelt out something like this:

  • In desire we know the beloved / Good / God.

  • But in desire we also know that we cannot but desire the beloved / Good / God for our own.

33What Angelo does not himself articulate but perhaps nevertheless embodies is:

  • Our chastened knowledge of desire is the closest we get to the beloved / Good / God.

34In other words, in falling so painfully short Angelo recognises what transcends him.  And I too have experienced something thing like this, a precious intimation of enlightenment which can only be accessed but is also betrayed by and remains beyond desire.  But I am hardly so identified with this as Angelo is.  It is through him that I acquire a better sense of it and begin to intuit what a life might be that was lived in accordance with such knowledge.

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Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, in Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, New York: Perrenial, 2004: 715-38

Fernie, Ewan. The Demonic: Literature and Experience, London and New York: Routledge, 2012.  

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie, New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Lukacher, Ned. Daemonic Figures: Shakespeare and the Question of Conscience, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Lohse, Bernard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (T and T Clark: Edinburgh, 1999).

Luther, Martin. Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, Anchor: Garden City, New York, 1961.

Mckenzie, William and Theodora Papadopoulou (eds). Shakespeare and I, London: Continuum, 2012.

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, New York: Norton, 2008.

Stevenson,Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, ed. M. A. Danahay, Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview 1999.

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1   Kierkegaard, 114.

2  Stevenson, letter to J. A. Symonds, from Skeryvore, Bournemouth, Spring 1886, pp. 127-8, appendix.

3  I initially introduced this reading of Measure for Measure in McKenzie and Papadopoulou.

4  For an alternative reading of this aspect of the play, see Lukacher, “Razing the Sanctuary: Measure for Measure”, pp.154-61.

5  References to this play are to Measure for Measure, ed. Brian Gibbons.

6  Reference from the Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2008).

7  Dostoevsky, 715-38.

8  Luther, 143.

9  Luther,142.

10  Quoted in Lohse, 70-1.

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Ewan Fernie, « ‘To sin in loving virtue’: desire and possession in Measure for Measure »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 15 | 2013, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2013, consulté le 25 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Ewan Fernie

Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. He is the author of Shame in Shakespeare, editor of Spiritual Shakespeares and co-ordinating editor of Reconceiving the Renaissance. He has recently completed a Macbeth novel with Simon Palfrey, with whom he is also General Editor of the ‘Shakespeare Now!’ series of short, provocative books published by Continuum. He was Principal Investigator of the AHRC / ESRC funded project, ‘The Faerie Queene Now: Remaking Religious Poetry for Today’s World', for which he wrote Redcrosse: A New Celebration of England and St George with the poets Andrew Motion, Michael Symmons Roberts and Jo Shapcott and the theologian Andrew Shanks.  Redcrosse was premiered at St George’s Chapel, Windsor and Manchester Cathedral in 2011 and will be published by Bloomsbury in November 2012, when it will also be performed by the RSC for Coventry Cathedral’s Jubilee.  Fernie’s new monograph, also published in November 2012, is entitled The Demonic: Literature and Experience.
Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham,

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