The great "Fever on Goodness": "Measure for Measure" and the war over reform

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

James E. Wellington - Committee Chair


Measure for Measure can be read as a commentary by Shakespeare on England's conflict over the reformation of manners and morals. Chiefly to control the conduct of the able-bodied poor, Parliament passed inequitable statutes which permitted "sin" to be punished as crime, usually according to the discretion of justices. The "godly justice," who saw himself as a partner to the Crown in the war against vice, was most likely to exact the full measure of punishment for personal conduct offenses. He was supported in his efforts by many of the godly and respectable sort, and opposed by many of the "idle sort" and ordinary villagers.In the play, Shakespeare focuses on the opposition between justices and the taphouse or alehouse society. In England, this conflict could articulate the growing divisiveness between the propertied elite and the able-bodied poor, the "respectable sort" and the "idle sort," representatives of the law and ordinary villagers. Through his treatment of Claudio and Juliet, Shakespeare focuses attention on the enforcement of legislation similar to Parliamentary statutes which allowed for harsh punitive punishment to be exacted against bastard bearers. The dramatist evidently believed that the common law courts should regulate bawdry, traditionally punished as crime in England, but he seems to have objected to the punishment of "sin" as crime, advocating the use of ecclesiastical rather than common law to regulate personal conduct. Measure for Measure also suggests that Shakespeare objected to efforts by the government and propertied elite to restrict marriage to the moneyed segment of the English population, efforts which contributed to an exceptionally high rate of illegitimacy between approximately 1595 and 1610. To counteract the deep divisiveness encouraged by the movement for reform, Shakespeare presents "godly" and "ungodly" as mirroring one another, sharing the frailty and ignorance to which all human beings are susceptible. If the idle sort need to rectify their distorted values, the same is true of the godly and respectable sort. No less dangerous to the individual and to society than feverous living, the great "fever on goodness" also must be cured if the family of the commonwealth is to be re-formed.


Literature, English

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