Decapitation, Pregnancy and the Tongue: The Body as Political Metaphor in Measure for Measure

Anna Muenchrath


This paper argues that the political metaphor of the king’s two bodies, as explicated by King James in his 1598 and 1599 political treatises, is the prevailing political theme of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Written in 1604, one year after James’ ascension to the English throne, the play acknowledges and critiques the metaphor, especially the conflation of its three valences: the juxtaposition of the king’s natural and political bodies, the king as the head of the body politic, and the king’s espousal of the body politic.  In the play, the manifestations of the metaphor occur: in the character of Angelo, whose carnal body is constantly at odds with his political body; in the duplication of various organs as both carnal and political organs, most notably the tongue and heart; in scenes of pregnancy and impregnation; and, in farcical scenes of decapitation. Shakespeare’s critique of the metaphor culminates in his introduction of the marriage contract in Act 5, which replicates the idea of the social contract that threatened James’ monarchical authority. While acknowledging the play as political commentary, this paper retains the play’s status as a problem play and refutes strict correlations between the play and its political moment in favor of revealing a relationship between the contemporaneous metaphor of the king’s body and the use of the body in Measure for Measure, illuminating the intricacies and fallacies of the metaphor as well Shakespeare’s complicated treatment of them.


Shakespeare; Measure for Measure; political theory; embodiment

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