Article Title

Measure for Measure and the (Anti-)Theatricality of Gascoigne's The Glasse of Government


Richard Hillman


George Gascoigne's The Glasse of Government (pub. 1575), classed as a "closet drama" on no clear evidence, is a Puritanical morality play on the theme of the Prodigal Son. This essay builds on and reapplies, from an intertextual and theatrical point of view, the suggestion made in New Critical terms by Charles T. Prouty (1964)–though never integrated into Shakespeare criticism–that Measure for Measure is significantly indebted to what Gascoigne himself labelled his "tragicall Comedie."

The standard presumption is that Shakespeare went back only to George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra (pub. 1578), where the plot of the corrupt deputy (itself available elsewhere, of course) was to be found associated with low-life comic elements suitable for transformation into the Lucio-Pompey-Mistress Overdone material. And it is well-known that Whetstone had appropriated Gascoigne's low-life characters to furnish an immoral underworld for his main action. But the argument here is that multiple verbal echoes and stage-images directly relate The Glasse of Government to Measure for Measure (and indeed to several other Shakespearean works) in such a way as to set up ambiguous resonances between the two plays. Paradoxically, Gascoigne's incarnations of vice, who pose a formidable practical challenge to his incorruptible magistrate Severus, encourage the instability of the "Justice or Iniquity" dichotomy in Measure for Measure and help extend that questioning to its magistrates by way of the basic structural opposition between Angelo and the Duke.

In light of this intertextual dynamic, moreover, Gascoigne's text, dismissed as drearily moralistic by literary historians when it is mentioned at all, is itself surprisingly revealed as a repository of theatrical energy and invention of a kind that belies–even while backhandedly confirming–its reputation as a monolithically Puritanical production. And a strong case can be made that it was designed, at least, for the stage.

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