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Measure for Measure and the Problem of Popularity



This essay uses King James I's rejection of Elizabethan practices of “popularity” during his accession progresses as an entry point into how Measure for Measure explores tensions between absolutism and a public sphere. Like James, Duke Vincentio dislikes performing affability with his subjects; Shakespeare expands the Duke's reticence into a larger rejection of the public and its networks of news, analysis, and gossip. The Duke sees this public, whose noise he seeks to control, as the chief impediment to his authority. When the play ends with the Duke's successful return to absolute power and a sense of real presence (which is instantiated in his silencing of the other characters), Shakespeare teaches playgoers how to interact with their new king without offending him (to be silent and still). But even as Measure for Measure critiques the London public that demanded “popularity” from James, its critique of that consuming public is simultaneously undercut by the play's own use of news and its analysis of “popularity.” In other words, Measure for Measure retails the very thing it purports to discipline—news and analysis about politics. (J. S. D.)

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