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Every True Man's Apparel

Shakespeare on the "Mystery" of Criminal Punishment

Every True Man's Apparel - Shakespeare on the "Mystery" of Criminal Punishment
L Joseph Hebert

Every True Man’s Apparel: Shakespeare on the “Mystery” of Criminal Punishment

Act 4, Scene 2 of Measure for Measure opens with one of the most morbidly comical episodes in Shakespeare’s blackest comedy. A brief exchange between a jailor, a prisoner, and an executioner exposes their profound philosophical differences over the nature of crime and punishment, and ends with a statement purporting to be a logical “proof” of the executioner’s view of his own trade, a proof which is actually presented in the form of a riddle. At first glance, the shadows of Shakespeare’s gallows humor are further darkened by the obscurity of this hangman’s “mystery.” Yet a careful consideration of the meaning of this macabre exchange and its enigmatic conclusion sheds light not only on Shakespeare’s intentions in the scene and the play, but also on his understanding of the nature and legitimacy of the law’s use of punishment to enforce its regulation of human actions in general, and sexual conduct in particular.

The scene begins with the Provost—Vienna’s head jailor—negotiating with Pompey, “a notorious bawd” (pimp) recently imprisoned for his lifetime of crime. “Come hither, sirrah,” says the Provost. “Can you cut off a man’s head?” Pompey responds with characteristic equivocation:

If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can, but if he be a married man, he’s his wife’s head, and I can never cut off a woman’s head.

Though the Provost takes this as yet another of Pompey’s evasive “snatches,” the reply is actually rich with connections to the unfolding themes of the drama.

To begin with, Pompey’s reply is part of a series of quips which together constitute a stubborn defense of his former way of life combined with a critique of the law that condemns it. Pompey here admits to the Provost that he has been “an unlawful bawd time out of mind,” and declares himself “content to be a lawful hangman” in commutation of his sentence. Yet prior scenes have established that Pompey believes prostitution to be the fulfillment of a natural and irrepressible urge, rendering the law against it arbitrary and hence illegitimate in his view. “What do you think of the trade, Pompey?” Lord Escalus had asked him. “Is it a lawful trade?” “If the law would allow it, sir,” he had replied, bragging to himself that “the valiant heart’s not whipped out of his trade” (Act 2, Scene 1). In addition to questioning the basis of the law, Pompey repeatedly alludes to its apparent cruelty. In this instance, if he accepts the Provost’s bargain, Pompey’s first execution will be that of Claudio, a young man condemned to death for getting his fiancée with child. By cutting off Claudio’s head, the law will indeed be inflicting grave harm on his would-be wife and offspring (compare Act 2, Scene 2). In his own mind, Pompey the bawd seems humane by comparison to such a law!

What are we to make of Pompey’s self-serving barbs? Are we simply to dismiss them as the rationalizations of a wicked man? Shakespeare has in fact put us on guard against Pompey’s tactics from the beginning of the play, with his reference to “the sanctimonious pirate, that went to sea with the ten commandments, but scraped one out of the table”—“Thou shalt not steal” (Act 1, Scene 2). For the same reason a pirate will not condemn robbery, a mercenary is reluctant to pray for peace, and a pimp loathe to admit the harms of fornication and adultery. This impression is confirmed by libertine Lucio, who strongly echoes Pompey’s defense of sexual promiscuity as natural and harmless—“a game of tick-tack”—yet who admits to suffering from venereal disease and to having abandoned a child he fathered with a “rotten medlar” (Act 1, Scenes 2-3; Act 4, Scene 3).

On second thought, however, the sanctimoniousness of the pirate, the pimp, and the playboy—an attitude that in its smug dismissal of sexual morality has all but become the rule in our day—demands an adequate response. If it is true, as St. Thomas Aquinas holds, that human law must embody natural law, and that natural law is found in our innate and reasonable instincts for survival, procreation, and social harmony (Summa Theologiae, I-II 94.2, 95.2), then it may not be immediately clear to everyone how the law can deprive a man of life on account of procreative acts. Indeed, the Provost himself seems to doubt the complete legitimacy of the law he enforces. Not only does he question Claudio’s sentence, deeming his sins light and Claudio himself “more fit to do another such offense / Than die for this” (Act 2, Scenes 2&3), but when faced with the executioner’s disdain for Pompey the pimp, the Provost exclaims “Go to, sir, you weigh equally: a feather will turn the scale.” As the very name of the executioner—Abhorson—suggests, the coercion employed by the law in the regulation of sexual conduct can appear abhorrent and illegitimate even to law abiding citizens who despise the conduct being regulated. Yet Pompey’s apprenticeship to the executioner provides an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the reasons why law employs force in the punishment of such vices.

Ironically, Pompey’s initial self-excusing answer to the Provost already contains the seeds of an account that will confirm his guilt and justify his punishment. In referring to the married man as head of his wife, Pompey is alluding to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:

Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life: . . . that it should be holy, and without blemish. . . . This is a great mystery (μυστήριον, sacramentum); but I speak in Christ and in the church (Eph. 5.22-33).

In his sanctimoniousness, Pompey claims to respect the Christian doctrine that a married man is head of his wife, but in his pomposity he ignores the nature of marriage and the harm his profession does to it. On the plane of nature, marriage is an institution promoting the common good by binding the pleasures of begetting children to the duties of nourishing and educating them (ST Sup. 41.1). On the plane of grace, marriage is a mystery or sacrament signifying the union of Christ and His Church, with both unions being ordered toward the sanctification of their members. By facilitating fornication and infidelity, Pompey helps to prevent the formation of or weaken the existing bonds between husband and wife, thereby undermining the common good and contributing to evils such as disease, poverty, ignorance, and a whole train of vices that follow—then or now—more or less directly from these. By plying his trade, then, Pompey does in a very real sense “cut off a woman’s head,” time and again!

Abhorson, despite the contempt in which the Provost holds him, has complete confidence in the legitimacy of his office. “A bawd, sir?” he says when presented with Pompey, “Fie upon him, he will discredit our mystery.” After joking about his “hanging look,” Pompey is provoked to ask, “Do you call, sir, your occupation a mystery?” “Painting, sir, I have heard say, is a mystery,” and since prostitutes “paint,” pimping is a mystery, “but what mystery there should be in hanging, if I should be hanged, I cannot imagine.” To Abhorson’s reply, “Sir, it is a mystery,” Pompey demands, “Proof?” Abhoson gives the following “proof”:

Every true man’s apparel fits your thief. If it be too little for your thief, your true man thinks it big enough. If it be too big for your thief, your thief thinks it little enough, so every true man’s apparel fits your thief.

What are we to make of this mysterious answer? To start with its surface meaning, note that Abhorson’s “proof” parodies a logical syllogism. The argument presupposes a thief who robs a true (honest or law-abiding) man of his clothing, and holds that in all such cases the stolen clothes will fit the thief. After all, clothes can only not fit by being too little or too big. Yet if they are too little, the proof claims, then they are “big enough”; if too big, they are “little enough”; hence they are always at least approximately the right size. Of course, the major and minor premises here depend on different perspectives: clothes too little for the thief are a “big enough” loss to the honest man; clothes too big for the thief are of “little enough” gain to him. For comically obvious reasons, therefore, the “proof” is invalid.

What then is the meaning, for Abhorson or for Shakespeare, of this “proof” of the mystery of the executioner’s occupation? On closer consideration we see that the argument is actually a riddle which requires us to consider the symbolic significance of its terms. The riddle focuses on the distinction between the law-abiding and the law-breaking man, just as the scene before us raises the question of what differentiates the “unlawful bawd” from the “lawful hangman.” The argument holds that “every true man’s apparel fits your thief,” meaning that the goods the law allows the law-abiding man to enjoy would equally befit the lawless—or that, as Pompey holds, the distinction between the lawful and lawless is arbitrary. In fact, Pompey himself had used the image of clothing to make his case about the groundlessness of law:

‘Twas never a merry world since, of two usuries (business practices), the merriest was put down, and the worser allowed, by order of the law, a furred gown to keep him warm (Act 3, Scene 2).

Quite literally, then, Pompey believes that the “true man’s apparel”—the “furred gown”—would fit the “thief” (or pimp) at least as well as it fits the “true man.”

To prove the mystery of his profession, then, Abhorson has restated his opponent’s case so as to expose its fatal flaw: the fallacy—so often committed by Pompey—of equivocation. As we have noted, Pompey’s rationalizations of his illicit trade seize upon the partial and apparent goods—especially the pleasures—it serves, while ignoring its many harms; likewise, his jabs at the law focus on its obvious pains while ignoring the greater and truer goods it protects. In other words, Pompey’s edifice of self-justification rests upon an equivocation between more and less comprehensive conceptions of good and bad. In pointing this out as he does, Abhorson helps us to see that natural, human, and divine law are grounded in a higher and more complete reason than that motivating criminals, so that crime in general, and pimping in particular, can be defended only by confusing false with true conceptions of the human good.

As Duke Vincentio remarks on witnessing Pompey’s arrest, the punishments of law serve not only to encourage and protect the “true man,” but also to provide the criminal himself with “correction and instruction,” which “must both work / Ere this rude beast will profit.” The same Duke, at whose instigation the vices of Vienna are being weeded out in this play, will pardon Claudio, who is willing to marry the mother of his child, and require Lucio, though unwilling, to do the same. The Duke understands, with Aristotle and Aquinas, that punishment is remedial, and exists to habituate citizens gradually (if sometimes forcefully) in the practice of virtue by regulating outward actions (N. Ethics II.3; ST I-II 96.2-3). Though capital punishment in itself is certainly not be the best means of accomplishing this goal, it does provide the law’s ultimate sanction; and so Abhorson the executioner understands his unpleasant office as a mystery in light of the order of natural and supernatural goods the law protects and fosters. This too is a mystery of which St. Paul speaks when he says of the one wielding the law’s “higher powers” that “he is God’s minister to thee, for good, . . . an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil” (Rom. 13.1-4). Through the grim humor of this scene, Shakespeare seems to confirm the executioner’s understanding of his “mystery,” which is that of the law itself. Our own glibly antinomian age might do well to ponder the implications of that wisdom.