OK, so we all know Willy Shakes was a master…borrower. But with Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s lineage of plotline seems more like natural selection than the picking and choosing of a thief.
According to urban legend, the roots of what would become the plot of Measure for Measure lay within a “based on a true story” incident from mid-sixteenth century Italy. According to this tale, a man near Milan was convicted of an uncertain crime and condemned to death. His wife saved her husband by having sex with the judge who had sentenced the husband. Even after the assignation, however, the judge had the husband executed. Once the judge was found out, he was forced to marry the woman, and then executed for his crime.
Many believe this tale was the basis for a narrative by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi, better known as Cinthio, which appeared as one of the stories in his collection called The Hecatommithi, in 1565, a little less than twenty years after the historical incident. In Cinthio’s (first) version, the condemned man is guilty of rape, and the woman is not his wife but his sister. As in the “true story,” the woman sleeps with the judge to free her brother, but he has the man executed anyway. Adding insult to injury, he has the corpse brought to her. When her plea to the emperor is heard, the judge is forced to marry the woman, and he is sentenced to death. But after she begs for her husband’s life, he is spared by the emperor.
Cinthio also wrote a dramatic version of the story, but it wasn’t released until nearly twenty years after the prose version (and nearly a decade after Cinthio’s death). In the 1583 play titled Epitia (the name of the heroine), most of the story’s elements are retained, but Cinthio ended the play with a twist: the sister refuses to beg for her husband’s (the judge’s) life, but when it is revealed that her brother was not dead–the corpse delivered to her was that of another prisoner, and not her brother, who had been kept alive by the jailer–she then pleads for the judge’s life and he is spared.
Cinthio’s original narrative version was the source for British writer George Whetsone’s play of 1578, The right, excellent and famous Historye of Promos and Cassandra. There’s no record of any performance of the play, but four years later Whetstone released a prose retelling of the story in “The Rare Historie of Promos and Cassandra,” which was one of the stories in his collection, Heptameron of Civil Discourses. In these versions from 1578 and 1582, respectively, Whetstone makes a few changes from the Cinthio narrative: the man’s crime is seduction instead of rape. Instead of her brother’s body (or rather that of his substitute–as in the Cinthio play) being delivered to her, it’s his decapitated head. Whetstone also adds the brothel subplot with Mistress Overdone.
Based on the similarities, it seems fairly obvious that Shakespeare was working from Whetstone’s version(s). But given that Othello would be based on another of Cinthio’s works (and one that had no English translation), it also appears that Shakespeare was at least aware of the Cinthio version(s). It’s even conceivable that he knew of the legendary “true story.”
But as always, it’s Shakespeare’s deviations that are noteworthy:
- Claudio’s crime isn’t seduction, but simple fornication.
- Isabella refuses Angelo’s demands.
- The duke plays a major role in the plot, and because of this:
- Isabella doesn’t lose her virginity, substituting Angelo’s former fiancée Mariana for Isabella (the Bed Trick).
- Isabella doesn’t marry Angelo.
- Angelo–not Isabella–sees the head of the executed.
- Isabella begs for Angelo’s life before she learns her brother is alive.
- The duke asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage.
How do these changes make Measure for Measure a qualitatively different experience than its sources?