Good and bad motives for celibacy

W. H. Auden on William Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure:

Angelo starts off thinking that the law against fornication is a good law, both for him and for others, and others think he can fulfill the law easily, that he is passionless. They are both wrong. He has a unique relation to law. He wants to be celibate, but there is a difference between his and Isabell’s wish to be so. Isabella wants to give her self to celibacy for the sake of God and her neighbor. Angelo wants to be celibate as a matter of pride because he doesn’t want to be weak like Lucio. A terrible revenge is taken on him. He values chastity aesthetically, he envies Isabella as a stronger character, and he wishes to go to bed with her to appropriate her chastity as something he can absorb. The difference between the superego and conscience is demonstrated in Angelo. He has the former, not the latter. He wishes to show his superior power by judging others, and he becomes involved in a situation with Isabella in which he demonstrates a very conscious, deliberate malice that wouldn’t be true of a less powerful character. When you want to be good for the sake of strength, you can get much worse.

Lectures on Shakespeare, edited by Arthur Kirsch


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