Measure for Measure: Juliet(ta)

Last week, I spent a few entries discussing Mariana from Measure for Measure. Today, I want to talk about another of the supporting female characters: Claudio’s pregnant betrothed, Juliet. Within the play, she is called both Juliet and Julietta, interchangeably.


When we first hear of her, it is in reference to Claudio’s arrest and death sentence; brothel owner Mistress Overdone says that Claudio’s punishment “is for getting Madam Julietta with child” (I.ii.71). Claudio also calls her Julietta (I.ii.145), then Juliet, too (I.ii.154).

The other references are all as Juliet. Overdone’s tapster Pompey refers to her as “Madam Juliet” (I.ii.114). The Provost calls her Juliet once, and Isabella refers to her twice by that name, once with the title “cousin” (I.iv.45). When Lucio asks if they are truly cousins, Isabella responds, “Adoptedly, as schoolmaids change their names // By vain though apt affection” (I.iv.47-8). So, despite not being related, Isabella calls Juliet cousin through a “worthless” though “appropriate” “feeling” (“vain, adj. and n.; I.1.a”, “apt, adj.; 3.a”, “affection, n.1; I.a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 31 October 2015.).

Appropriately worthless? I think something is rotten in the state of this Viennese friendship.

Hear me out.

When Claudio begs for his life to Isabella, she responds,

 O, fie, fie, fie!
Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd.
’Tis best that thou diest quickly.
  • III.i.147-50

Claudio, according to Isabella, has made a career out of the same act that has gotten Juliet pregnant. Is Isabella accusing her brother of being a bawd? Not technically, but the interpretation is possible. In the mind of Mistress Overdone, Claudio is worth “five thousand” (I.ii.59) of the men who are the customers of the brothel. Is this perceived worth based on his ability to earn for her? Let’s say for argument’s sake he is a bawd. Could it be then that Claudio met Julietta, as she was a fellow employee of Overdone’s?

I find it interesting that both Overdone and Claudio are the only two characters who call her by Julietta (is this a better brothel name than Juliet?). Also, when Claudio does refer to her as Julietta, it’s in connection with her bed (I.ii.145); when he uses the other version of the name, he is speaking of her pregnancy (not the usual whorish state). Both Overdone and Pompey call her “madam.” The only other character called “madam” is Overdone herself–under the moniker “Madam Mitigation” (I.ii.43), a use that primes the the audience for later use of the word in connection to Julietta. While its use to mean purely “prostitute” didn’t rise until after the composition of this play (1660, “madam, n.; 4.b” OED Online), this linguistic priming does connect Julietta to Overdone and her occupation.

Suppose Isabella and Juliet were childhood friends. The righteous Isabella takes one path (to the nunnery) while Juliet takes another (to the “nunnery”) and takes on a slightly altered work moniker. This would most definitely cause Isabella to look upon their past true affection as presently worthless.

Even if Juliet isn’t a prostitute, Measure for Measure’s overwhelmingly sexualized tone certainly makes it feel as if it’s within the realm of reason.

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