Anybody catch the subtle foreshadowing of piracy in Measure for Measure?
In Act One, Scene Two, in only the second utterance out of Lucio’s mouth, he references the concept of “the sanctimonious pirate” (I.ii.7). This grounds the world of the play as one in which pirates exist. Of course, this comes into play (no pun intended) when the decapitated head of “one Ragozine, a most notorious pirate” (IV.iii.70) is substituted for Claudio’s to fool Angelo into thinking that his execution order had been, well, executed.
In the world of the play, piracy is not exactly a positive endeavor. Was this a political decision on the part of Shakespeare?
Under Queen Elizabeth, British
pirates–excuse me, privateers–were crucial in the naval campaigns against the Spanish Armada. One of James I’s first foreign policy initiatives when he assumed the throne in March of 1603 was to end the long-standing war between England and Spain. By August of the next year, peace was achieved.
Most scholars believe Shakespeare composed Measure for Measure during the 1603-04 time frame, with its first recorded performance being in December of 1604. Interestingly, in April of 1603, Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, became the King’s Men. Fancy that.
Was this play’s less-than-positive portrayal of pirates a way to curry favor with his new patron? It’s possible. Remember that pirates play a much more positive role in Hamlet, a play written and first performed before James I’s ascension. In that play, our titular prince refers to the pirates who saved him as “thieves of mercy” (Hamlet, IV.vi.21).
From merciful to notorious. Arrrgggghhhh…