The juniors and seniors in my Shakespeare elective are exploring the flawed characters and twisted plot of Measure for Measure. By the end of Act 4, Angelo has offered an indecent proposal to Isabella, the Duke has countered by orchestrating the bed trick with Isabella and Mariana, the Provost has received orders to behead Claudio anyway, the Duke has organized the head trick to subvert this order, Lucio is spreading slander, and Pompey and Barnardine are gleefully unrepentant. When we finished reading this act, I drew an arrow the length of the board and labeled one end “Good” (or “Righteous”) and the other “Evil” (or “Wicked”). I asked students to draw their own continuum on paper and sort Angelo, Isabella, the Duke, Escalus, Claudio, Lucio, Pompey, and Barnardine in some kind of moral order.
After students completed this individually, one person came to the board and assigned Claudio a place on the spectrum. The class chimed in with opinions, and Claudio was erased and repositioned as a result. Then, another student placed a second character in relation to Claudio. As we moved through the list, the conversations became more impassioned and vehement. Angelo was relegated to the no-man’s land past the end of the Evil arrow, but Isabella’s character caused the most heated debate. Students kept referencing her statement to Claudio when she tells him to “Die, perish” (3.1.161). Those defending her cited her claim that Claudio has sinned before and will again, as well as her belief that she would be eternally damned for giving in to Angelo’s demands.
Once we reached some form of consensus, I challenged them to find a quotation to justify a character’s placement, and we added those to the board. Since we could not agree on Isabella, different students wrote quotations to support her class placement, defend moving her toward Good, or rationalize inching her toward Evil. We looked at the board to draw some conclusions about how we make moral judgments; this group felt that lying made the difference for them. They were willing to accept characters like Barnardine and Pompey who own their flaws, but Lucio and Angelo’s deceptions and manipulations make them more wicked than the murderer and the pimp.
I drew another arrow on the board and labeled it “Boring” and “Entertaining,” and we put the same characters on this scale. Students admitted that some of the most morally reprehensible characters (we’re looking at you, Barnardine, Pompey, Lucio, and Angelo) are the most entertaining, which led us to examine another layer of our reactions to literature.
I have also used this prompt with eighth graders as a culminating activity for our short story unit. How does Montresor from “The Cask of Amontillado” rank when compared to Mary Maloney from “Lamb to the Slaughter”? Where do we place Tony from “Wine on the Desert,” who indirectly but intentionally causes the death of an evil friend? And what do we think about the society in “The Lottery” when they continue stoning their friends and neighbors?
This is one of my favorite discussions of the year because students engage with the text on a very personal level. They are comfortable using the text because they have a point to prove, and Shakespeare’s words will support their arguments. We do not reach any earth-shattering conclusions about morality, but we are positioned to explore Act 5 and react to the resolution, or lack thereof, in this problem play.