In Shakespeare's time, church and state struggled to control sexuality. Most parishes had Bishop's or consistory courts that dealt with moral offenses—adultery, whoredom, incest, drunkenness, swearing, ribaldry, usury, and any other "uncleanness and wickedness of life"—in addition to heresy, blasphemy, and failure to attend church. Those Elizabethans who challenged the law faced a kind of double jeopardy: there were two legal systems, each with its laws, officers, trials and punishments. The ecclesiastical courts tried so many cases of sexual offenses that wags called them "bawdy courts." Offenses like prostitution and bastardy were heard by the justices of the peace; the flagrant adulteries of the upper class were dealt with by the Court of High Commission, the supreme ecclesiastical court, which had the distinction of never having found any defendant not guilty. The Church courts were empowered to investigate any reports of scandalous behavior. Constables could haul suspects before a magistrate, as the malaprop constable Elbow drags the bawd Pompey to justice on the suspicions of his wife in Measure for Measure, and they even had the power to break into houses suspected of harboring offenders. Minor officials, like the beadles or parish constables, spied out offenses, often at the prompting of neighbors. The accused were required to collect character references from distinguished, respectable neighbors, who, by the archaic standard of compurgation followed in the church courts, were called upon to testify not to the truth of an accusation but to the general belief in it. And the accused were expected to pay fees to the officers of the church courts whether they were found guilty or not. As we shall see, Shakespeare himself did not escape the long arm of the bawdy courts.

Bawdy Court

Officers of the Court

Those accused of "fornication"—pre-marital sex—could not escape punishment simply by marrying; sometimes couples were "presented," to use the technical term, because the early birth of a child proved that conception had taken place before marriage. The existence of a contract to wed did not automatically remove the offense, though it might mitigate the punishment. Offenders had to undergo penance and public humiliation: the pillory, or by standing, sometimes in a white sheet, before the congregation or in the market-place. Parents of illegitimate children usually received a whipping, "well laid on till the blood come."

"Well laid on till the blood come"


To many Puritans the lash and the white sheet of penance had proven too mild to curb vice. They may have been responding to real changes in sexual morality. Between 1595 and 1610, illegitimacy, which had been rising since 1580, reached an unprecedented high. The bad harvests from 1594 to 1598 led to severe dearth and some famine; along with rising prices, heavy taxes, and outbreaks of plague, they made it much harder for the poor to set up independent households, requisite for marriage.


Fornication was also common. Since in the canon law a promise to marry followed by sexual intercourse constituted a valid, though irregular, marriage, many couples, like Claudio and Juliet, felt they were "married in the eyes of God" once they were "made sure" by hand-fasting or formal contract and began to have sexual intercourse. Popular attitudes, though far from loose, were simply more flexible that those of the professional moralists. When marriage was, or seemed, assured, many, perhaps most, couples began to have sex. In a Somerset case a farmer reported a couple he caught in the act in "a plot of grass under a hedge." "When John and Hanna had almost ended what they were about, this informant stepped unto them and took John by the tail of his shirt and demanded of them why they were so wicked as to commit such a wicked act, to which John said that Hannah was his wife by promise and that he did intend to marry her the next morning at eight of the clock." No more than half the couples who contracted to be married were still virgins on their wedding night, and as many as thirty per cent of English brides were pregnant, including Shakespeare's own Anne Hathaway.

"No more than half were still virgins"

In the fall of 1582, the eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare and the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway, the eldest daughter of a neighboring farmer, needed to get married. Normally the priest of their parish would proclaim the banns, an official notice of their intention to marry, on three successive Sundays or Holy Days in the parish church, so that anyone who knew of any impediment to their marriage, like consanguinity or pre-contract, could protest. But canon law forbade the publishing of banns in December and most of January, and Shakespeare, a minor, needed his father's consent. So late in November, two friends of the bride's family rode twenty-one miles to the bawdy court in the cathedral town of Worcester to secure a license exempting the couple from the marriage laws. For a substantial fee and a bond of 40, a very significant sum, the court allowed Anne, with her family's consent, to marry with only one asking of the banns. Despite her pregnancy the bawdy court described her as a "maiden," instead of using the more invidious term, "single-woman."

Shakespeare's Bond

The church, however, frowned upon the practice of couples going to bed before they had gone to church, and the ecclesiastical courts often punished them with public penance. Puritan reformers especially railed against the practice. Miles Coverdale's sixteenth-century treatise on The Christen State of Matrymonye rebuked those 'handfasted persons' who were 'brought and laid together, yea, certain weeks afore they go to the church'. The Elizabethan Puritan Richard Greenham beseeched contracted couples 'to keep themselves chaste until the marriage be sanctified by the public prayers of the church; for otherwise many marriages have been punished of the Lord for the uncleanness that hath been committed betwixt the contract and the marriage." And Gouge called it "an unwarrantable and dishonest practice" for couples to "take liberties after a contract to know their spouse, as if they were married." Their stern rebukes were necessary because a significant part of the population still held that the contract was itself a binding and valid form of marriage and contested the reformers' insistence that it had to be sanctified in church.

hath been
betwixt the
contract and
the marriage"


At the same time prostitution and disease were rife. Prostitution was a crime. A Swiss visitor, Thomas Platter, admired how London authorities handled prostitution: "special commissions are set up, and when they meet with a case, they punish the man with imprisonment and fine. The woman is taken to Bridewell, the King's palace, situated near the river, where the executioner scourges her naked before the populace." Still, prostitution flourished, especially in the liberties. "London," Thomas Nashe wrote in his scandal-mongering pamphlet, Christ's Tears over Jerusalem of 1592, "what are thy suburbs but licensed stews? Can there be so many brothel-houses of salary sensuality and six-penny whoredom? . . . whole hospitals of ten-times-a-day dishonested strumpets have we cloistered together."

A Prostitute

The poor and crowded suburbs with their stews and taverns were also an ideal breeding ground for plague. A severe outbreak killed 15,000 Londoners in 1593 alone; the City authorities closed the theaters between June, 1592, and May, 1594. Another in 1603 killed 36, 000, a sixth of the city, closing the theaters from March, 1603, to April, 1604 and led King James to issue a proclamation calling for the razing of houses and tenements in the suburbs of London, primarily as a precaution against the spread of plague by "dissolute and idle persons." The first play that Shakespeare staged once the theaters reopened in 1604 was probably Measure for Measure, his last and darkest comedy, in which a zealous magistrate orders that all the "houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down" (1.2.98–99). The plague lingered. Another outbreak in 1609 killed 4,000 and closed the theaters again.

Burying the Dead

Thomas Nashe captured the terrors of the plague; his description in his picaresque novel of an outbreak in Rome in 1522 is no doubt based upon the one he lived through in London between 1592 and 1594.


Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveler (1594)

There entered such a hot-spurred plague as hath not been heard of. Why, it was but a word and a blow, 'Lord, have mercy upon us', and he was gone. Within three quarters of a year in that one city there died of it a hundred thousand: look in Lanquet's Chronicle and you shall find it. To smell of a nosegay that was poisoned, and turn your nose to a house that had the plague, it was all one. The clouds—like a number of cormorants that keep their corn till it stink and is musty—kept in their stinking exhalations till they had almost stifled all Rome's inhabitants. Physicians' greediness of gold made them greedy of their destiny. They would come to visit those with whose infirmity their art had no affinity; and even as a man with a fee should be hired to hang himself, so would they quietly go home and die presently after they had been with their patients. All day and all night long car-men did nothing but go up and down the streets with their carts and cry 'Have you any dead bodies to bury?' and had many times out of one house their whole loading. One grave was the sepulcher of seven score; one bed was the altar whereon whole families were offered. The walls were hoared and furred with the moist scorching steam of their desolation. Even as, before a gun is shot off, a stinking smoke funnels out and prepares the way for him: so before any gave up the ghost death, arrayed in a stinking smoke, stopped his nostrils and crammed itself full into his mouth that closed up his fellow's eyes, to give him warning to prepare for his funeral. Some died sitting at their meat, others as they were asking counsel of the physician for their friends. I saw at the house where I was hosted a maid bring her master warm broth for to comfort him, and she sink down dead herself ere he had half eat it up.

Plague Doctor

Despite his savage hatred of the Puritans, even Nashe interpreted the plague as God's judgment upon a wicked people:

How thinkest thou, is there a power above thy power? If there be, he is here present in punishment, and on thee will take present punishment if thou persistest in thy enterprise. In the time of security every man sinneth, but when death substitutes one friend his special bailie [bailiff] to arrest another by infection, and disperseth his quiver into ten thousand hands at once, who is it but looks about him? A man that hath an unevitable huge stone hanging only by a hair over his head, which he looks every paternoster-while to fall and pash him in pieces, will not he be submissively sorrowful for his transgressions, refrain himself from the least thought of folly, and purify his spirit with contrition and penitence? God's hand like a huge stone hangs inevitably over thy head. What is the plague but death playing the Provost Marshal to execute all those that will not be called home by any other means?

"The plague [is] death playing the Provost Marshal"

There was another visible sign of God's retribution: the pox. Syphilis, probably imported from the New World by Columbus's men, first appeared in 1495 in Naples among a French army composed of Flemish, Swiss, Italian and Spanish mercenaries. In late summer, when the troops returned to their respective countries, they spread the disease all over Europe. Within a year the sexual means of its transmission was discovered and theories of its origin proposed. One ascribed it to the conjunction of five planets in the constellation of Scorpio, the sign believed to rule the genitals, in 1494. But many felt that the pox was a manifestation of God's wrath over sexual license.

Death Stars

The pox raged virulently through England as well. It was often fatal and afflicted its survivors with deep scars, which they often covered with patches of velvet. "Thou art piled for a French velvet," the First Gentleman brays at Lucio In Measure for Measure (1.2.33-4). To be "piled" or have a "French crown" was to have gone bald as a result of the pox. Others suffered from the "Neapolitan bone-ache."

The Pox

The brothels and alehouses of the suburbs were frequently blamed as sources of the disease. In 1579, the pre-eminent Elizabethan surgeon, William Clowes, blamed the spread of the pox not just on the whores and bawds of the stews but on the sturdy rogues and vagabonds streaming into the suburbs [see the section on the Liberties in the Histories Contexts]:

the cause whereof, I see none so great as the licentiousness, and beastly disorder of a great number of rogues, and vagabonds: the filthy life of many lewd and idle persons, both men, and women, about the city of London, and the great number of lewd alehouses, which are the  very nests and harborers of such filthy creatures. . . . By means of which disordered persons, some other of better disposition are many times infected, and many more like to be.

"Licentiousness and beastly disorder"

These "lewd and idle persons," corrupting and weakening the nobility and gentry, threatened the entire realm. As far as preachers and pamphleteers was concerned, venereal disease was God's swift and painful punishment on those who made use of the prostitute's abominable services, a foretaste on earth of the torments of hell. Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses, gave it pride of place in his comprehensive and detailed list of the dread consequences of whoredom: "There is no such murderer on the face of the earth as a whore," Stubbes thundered.



Thus, many, especially the Puritans, pushed for harsher treatment of sexual offenses. Some called for a return to the Old Testament, in which adultery was punished by death. In Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516), men and women guilty of pre-marital sex or "fornication" were forbidden to marry, and adultery was punished on the first offense by slavery and on the second by death. Erasmus, in his Praise of Matrimony (1518, translated 1536), recalled that the ancient Romans and Hebrews punished adulterers with death: "Doubtless," he concluded, "wedlock must needs seem a right holy thing which defiled cannot be repurged without man's blood."

"Wedlock cannot be repurged without man's blood"

For the Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes all sex outside of marriage was a sin, "damnable, pestiferous, and execrable." In his Anatomy of Abuses (1583) Stubbes proposed that all those who commit whoredom, adultery, incest, or prostitution should be "made to drink a full draught of Moses' cup, that is, taste of present death." He regretfully concluded that his fellow citizens, more merciful "than the Author of mercy himself," would never agree. Those convicted of sexual crimes, he urged, should at least "be cauterized, and seared with a hot iron on the cheek, forehead, or some other part" where all could see that they had been branded, "to the end [that] honest and chaste Christians might be discerned from the adulterous Children of Satan."

"The adulterous children
of Satan"

Even the moderate William Perkins, the most respected Puritan preacher of the time, pronounced that "the adulterer and adulteress by divine law should be put to death." "No man professing Christian religion," he insisted, "ought to take to himself in marriage a harlot, a defamed woman, or one that comes of infamous parents, though she be repentant." "A man as hath a concubine" might marry if he were to "renounce her and testify the same by true and unfeigned repentance" (Christian Economy, Chapter 5: "Of the Choice of Persons Fit for Marriage"). Several bills were introduced in Parliament to alter the law. None succeeded until 1650, after the triumph of Puritanism, when adultery was briefly made a felony punishable by death.

"The adulterer
should be put
to death"


Measure for Measure, especially, reflects the Puritan campaign. The play asks what would happen if sexual offenses like fornication, adultery, and bastardy (Lucio's crime) were punishable by death. And Shakespeare is careful to identify Angelo with those Puritans calling for a return to the full rigor of Old Testament law. When the Duke calls Angelo "precise" he uses a term applied to Puritans by their detractors. One, the playwright John Webster, sketched the "character" type of "a Precisian" as rigorous to a fault and charged that his display of virtue masked hypocrisy.

John Webster, Sir Thomas Overbury His Wife. With Additions of New Characters (1615)

"A Precisian

To speak no otherwise of this varnished rottenness than in truth and verity he is, I must define him to be a demure creature, full of oral sanctity and mental impiety; a fair object to the eye, but stark naught for the understanding, or else a violent thing much given to contradiction . . . He can better afford you ten lies than one oath, and dare commit any sin gilded with a pretense of sanctity. He will not stick to commit fornication or adultery so it be done in the fear of God and for the propagation of the godly, and can find in his heart to lie with any whore save the Whore of Babylon. [The Roman Catholic Church, alluding to Rev. 17:1, 5] . . . . He will not break wind without an apology or asking forgiveness, nor kiss a gentlewoman for fear of lusting after her. He hath nicknamed all the prophets and apostles with his sons, and begets nothing but virtues for daughters [his sons are named for biblical characters and his daughters for the Christian virtues, Faith, Hope, and charity]. Finally, he is so sure of his salvation that he will not change places in heaven with the Virgin Mary without boot.

"Nor kiss a
for fear of
after her"

A character in Thomas Middleton's play, The Puritan (1604) says, "I'll sooner expect mercy from a usurer when my bond's forfeited, sooner kindness from a lawyer when my money's spent, nay, sooner charity from the devil than good from a Puritan." And the Duke's description of Angelo—

Lord Angelo is precise,
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone

conveys some of the same doubt. A man who "Stands at a guard"—we would say "en garde"—"with envy" ("envy" here means the malice of others) is perhaps too concerned with his reputation. And because the word blood means "sexual appetite" as well as the bodily fluid in Elizabethan English, the Duke hints that Angelo refuses to acknowledge the sexual desire that is in everyone's blood.

"Scarce confesses
that his blood

The word reverberates throughout the play's descriptions of Angelo. To Lucio he is

a man whose blood
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense,
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge.

When Angelo, still struggling against his passion for Isabella, first confronts the fact of his own hypocrisy, admitting that were it not for his pride in his reputation for severity he would gladly exchange the solemn black dress of the elect for a gallant's fashionable feathered hat,

my gravity,
Wherein, let no man hear me, I take pride,
Could I, with boot, change for an idle plume
Which the air beats for vain.

and that high rank and the ceremonies of office merely

Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming

he finally acknowledges that sexual desire courses through his veins, too: "Blood, thou art Blood" (16), he says. Through the character of the hypocritical precisian Angelo, Shakespeare interrogates the Puritan campaign for the harsher punishment of sexual misconduct by surveying the judge instead of the judged. Crimes of the blood deserve mercy because blood flows in all of us, despite our protestations.

of the blood


In Measure for Measure the stews and taverns of the suburbs reappear again as the nexus of sexual appetite and misrule. The second scene is located in this criminal underworld, among the bawds and whores. While it may express the protest of ordinary life and the body against authoritarian repression ("Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city," the bawd Pompey asks Judge Escalus [2.1.217–8]), sexuality seems mired in this dark world of prostitution and the pox.


Like the law, nature, too, seems to punish fornication with death and disfigurement. The patrons of Mistress Overdone's house of resort mock each other for the diseases they have "purchased" at Madame Mitigation's: "three thousand dolours," "a French crown" or bald head caused by the pox, "profound sciatica" or bone-ache. So many of them are "with the sweat" (1.2.79), in the powdering or sweating tub, a treatment for the pox in which the patient was enclosed up to the neck and fumigated with powders of cinnabar or mercuric sulfide heated over hot coals, that she is "custom-shrunk" (80), short of customers. Later she ends up in a "tub" herself (3.2.53). To pay for sex in the stews is to purchase diseases.

Sweating Tub

Association with this demimonde of sexual corruption taints Claudio and Juliet. We first learn of Claudio's sentence from Mistress Overdone, and it's Pompey the bawd who informs us that his offense is "Groping for trouts in a peculiar river"(1.2.86); a "peculiar river" is privately owned, so Claudio's offense is figuratively a crime against property, poaching in another man's stream. Thus the distinction between sanctioned conjugal relations—Claudio's explanation that "upon a true contract / I got possession of Juliet's bed" (1.2.140–1)—and unsanctioned sexual license is blurred before it is made. All sexuality is associated with sin and disease, sin's consequence. As Claudio says,

Our natures do pursue
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

"A thirsty evil"


Only chaste, monogamous marriage, the completed marriage of the reformers consisting of parental consent and the approval of "friends," a public church wedding (what Claudio calls, sharply, the "denunciation" or declaration "of outward order"), and sexual consummation (which Angelo's marriage to Mariana lacks), escapes the indictment of sexual license in Measure for Measure. The play seems to investigate a spectrum of troubling sexual practices ranging from prostitution to the broken nuptials of Claudio and Angelo. In that investigation Shakespeare has interesting problems articulating the differences between prostitution and marriage.

Public Wedding

Take Claudio and Juliet. Claudio argues that they are essentially married by the older standard that a hand-fasting or pre-contract, even a private contract, constitutes marriage:

Upon a true contract,
I got possession of Juliet's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order. This we came not to
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

"For propagation
of a dower"

Claudio takes the position in canon law that a contract of sponsalia in verba de praesenti, a mutual acknowledgment that a couple is man and wife, is legally binding: "she is fast my wife." Even though the church preferred that the union were sanctioned by public ceremony, such a "true contract" conveyed legitimacy and the ability to inherit property upon the children of the match. Claudio and Juliet hoped to increase her dowry by reconciling her "friends," the term for parents, guardians, and near-relatives with an interest in the marriage whose goodwill would be helpful to the couple, to their marriage before going to church. But the language of the body, that "character . . . writ on Juliet," has revealed their sexual intimacy.


Such cases of pre-nuptial fornication, discovered when the woman became pregnant before she was married in church, were common in Shakespeare's England; his own bride was six-months pregnant when they wed. And Claudio's mixed feelings of anger and remorse—he is both innocent and guilty—reflect the uncertainty over what constitutes marriage at the time. But Claudio's language is curious. He speaks of their sexual union with legal language: a "contract" gives him legal "possession" of her body, yet "stealth" connotes the guilty theft of sexual pleasure. He refers to the sanctifying of their marriage as a "denunciation"—in Elizabethan English, "a formal or public announcement"—of "outward order," a mere formality with nothing to do with his inner state or feelings (OED 4). And he uses "propagation," a word that means "procreation, reproduction," in a new, figurative sense of "increase," first recorded in this passage, not to refer to her pregnancy but to their wish to swell her dowry. To Claudio the legal and the commercial have become confused with the sexual and generative. He uses marriage for gain in a way uncomfortably like the use of sex for gain in prostitution. When his sister accuses him of saving his own life by selling her body,

Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd.
she makes the link explicit.

"A denunciation
of outward order"

"Not accidental, but a trade"

Claudio's broken nuptials reveal that marriage is, as the reformers, said, not just a private decision between lovers but a public act conveying property rights as well as conjugal ones. This is clear in the case of Angelo's failed marriage. Mariana, according to the Duke,

should this Angelo have married, was affianced to her oath, and the nuptial appointed; between which time of the contract and limit of the solemnity, her brother Frederick was wrecked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister. But mark how heavily this befell to the poor gentlewoman. There she lost a noble and renowned brother, in his love toward her ever most kind and natural; with him, the portion and sinew of her fortune, her marriage dowry; with both, her combinate husband, this well-seeming Angelo. (3.1.209–18)


Like Claudio Angelo also thwarts a marriage out of greed, not to increase a dowry but because he will not receive one. For Angelo marriage is exclusively an economic exchange; all he values is his wife's dowry, not her companionship, the chance for offspring, even sexual gratification. He, too, confounds marriage with prostitution, not by having sex for money but by not having sex unless for money. In Measure for Measure two marriages by contract are broken because men overvalue property rights and transfers in marriage: Claudio, by taking possession of Juliet's body before going to church in order to enlarge her dowry; Angelo by not taking Mariana's body without her dowry. Both confuse marriage with prostitution. Only chaste, publicly sanctified marriage that can serve as the basis for the conveyance of property (the dowry) and the survival of patriarchal lineage through legitimate descent is condoned.

Claudio and
Angelo confuse marriage with

But Shakespeare is unable to resolve the contradictions he has uncovered within marriage. The Duke promises Isabella that the "bed trick," substituting Mariana's body for Isabella's, will "compel [Angelo] to her recompense, and here, by this is your brother saved, your honor untainted, the poor Mariana advantaged, and the corrupt deputy scaled" (3.1.245–8). But the Duke's scheme makes him a bawd as well, promoting sex for money ("recompense"), and a scene in which Isabella actually solicits Mariana is too unseemly for Shakespeare to stage. Moreover, by "entreat[ing]" (4.1.68) Mariana to go to Angelo's bed, the Duke is endorsing that older view that a marriage is made, and conjugal rights conveyed, by the contract rather than the wedding service:

He is your husband on a pre-contract.
To bring you thus together, 'tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit.

He is endorsing the very view and using the same legal language ("title") that Claudio has used to justify his possession of Juliet's bed, an act of pre-nuptial fornication that the Duke has condemned as a "sin" (2.3.19, 28, 31) and a "most offenseful act" (26) to Juliet. When he claims "'tis no sin," his words echo Claudio's when he pleads with Isabella to give up her body to "sweet uncleanness" with Angelo: "Sure it is no sin,/Or of the deadly seven it is the least" (3.1.110–1). And by using "deceit" to trick Angelo into having sex with Mariana, the act that in the eyes of the law converts a contract in the future tense (in verba de futuro) into a binding marriage, the Duke forces Angelo to marry without his consent, the sine quam non of marriage. Marriage, Coverdale wrote, "ought to be free and uncompelled," and no man or woman could lawfully be forced to wed; evidence of compulsion was one of the very few grounds for divorce or annulment. Yet in Shakespeare's Vienna marriage can be uncoupled from rape and prostitution only by compelling the unwilling Angelo to wed.