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Claudio to Lucio

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.

As surfeit is the father of much fast,

So every scope by the immoderate use

Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.

Measure for Measure, Act I, ii, 122-127.

These lines are fascinating from a few perspectives. First, they present a theme (perhaps  the theme) of the play. But I am interested in the structure of this short argument, and it works both make a logical case and an affective case. It would be hard to make such a compressed and persuasive argument in such few words. 

Background on the lines. 

Claudio is being led through the street as a prisoner. Lucio, a friend, sees him and asks what he has done. Lucio has been making sexually charged jokes about prostitutes and disease with some acquaintances and with a pimp and a madam. 

Claudio has been arrested for fornication. He got his fiancée pregnant (they were holding off on a dowery increase). The very strict and straightlaced interim ruler has enforced a law which the Duke (now “absent”) had allowed to go unheeded.

Claudio has been taken for the excess of his sexual behavior. Interestingly, Angelo, the interim ruler will face his own sexual politics and will be caught in the same vein as Claudio.

This short speech consists of three elements: First, a direct, albeit cryptic answer:

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.

Second: an observation of the general movement of human life. This is the pattern I followed to be destroyed:

As surfeit is the father of much fast,

So every scope by the immoderate use

Turns to restraint. 

Third: an explanation of the psychological process which gives rise to the pattern of human behavior.

                                    Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.

First, the answer:

Question (Lucio):

Why, how now, Claudio? Whence comes this restraint?

Answer:

From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty.

Lucio does not know what this means and will directly ask if it was murder.

The line is well constructed:

From too much LIBerty, my LUcio, LIBerty.

I’m not sure what to do with the other syllables: The accent could fall any of the other words, thus giving a different nuance of meaning. Why is clear is the alliteration on the L (and m: much, my). The L will drop out of the rest of the speech underscoring the use here. 

The answer is ironic: he speaks of liberty and that is precisely what he does not have. The nature of the liberty is unclear.

The characters have just been speaking of the bawdy houses being torn down, so the background of liberty and immorality in play.  Liberty and constraint will be a theme which will work out. 

In the next scene, the Duke will explain himself to a friar. There were many laws which the Duke had failed to enforce. He has left his position so that Angelo can reinstate and apply those laws. He explains the effect his failure to enforce laws has had:

For terror, not to use – in time the rod

More mocked than feared – so our decrees,

Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,

And liberty plucks justice by the nose,

The baby beats the nurse, and quiet athwart 

Goes all decorum

I.3. xxvii-xxxii.

So a liberty which counters order and justice is an issue which the play will consider.

Second, the observation:

This is stated in the form of a natural law, like gravity:

As surfeit is the father of much fast,

So every scope by the immoderate use

Turns to restraint. 

Claudio notes a principle of human life: an excess ends in its opposite so as to bring balance. This principle of balance is a theme throughout Shakespeare and takes its origin from the Galen theory of humors and the need to balance humors in the body.

The physician’s task was to diagnose which humor was out of balance; treatment then focused on restoring equilibrium by diet or by reducing the offending, out-of-balance humor by evacuating it.

(For the theory in Shakespeare see here: ):

This statement of a natural principle and pattern is exactly 2.5 lines long. It will be matched by another line of 2.5 lines. 

There is a light alliteration which holds the lines together: S & F: Surfeit, Scope, Father- Fast. The R in the final word will tie these lines to the following.

The use of the word father is ironic: Claudio’s “fast”, his imprisonment is because he is a father. 

And so far we have moral principle: excessive liberty leads to restraint. A principle of medicine and psychology: when one aspect of human life (a humor) is in excess, a contrary principle must be put into place to bring balance. 

This leads to a question: If balance and order are the good which we should seek to achieve, then what would bring a human being to act beyond moderation?

Third: The psychological process:

                        Our natures do pursue,

Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,

A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die.

This is a deeply Christian observation. It has to do with the concept of original sin. Original sin is often reduced to, guilt for a wrong I did not commit. (See, Finnegans Wake). Article 9 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England reads:

Original sin is not found merely in the following of Adam’s example (as the Pelagians foolishly say). It is rather to be seen in the fault and corruption which is found in the nature of every person who is naturally descended from Adam. The consequence of this is that man is far gone from his original state of righteousness. In his own nature he is predisposed to evil, the sinful nature in man always desiring to behave in a manner contrary to the Spirit. In every person born into this world there is fund this predisposition which rightly deserves God’s anger and condemnation. This infection within man’s nature persists even within those who are regenerate. This desire of the sinful nature, which in Greek is called fronema sarkos and is variously translated the wisdom or sensuality or affection or desire of the sinful nature, is not under control of God’s law. Although there is no condemnation for those that believe and are baptized, nevertheless the apostle states that any such desire is sinful. 

Look back at Claudio’s explanation: the fault springs from our “nature”.  Now consider carefully the article:

It is rather to be seen in the fault and corruption which is found in the nature of every person who is naturallydescended from Adam. The consequence of this is that man is far gone from his original state of righteousness. In his own nature he is predisposed to evil, the sinful nature in man always desiring to behave in a manner contrary to the Spirit…. This infection within man’s nature persists even within those who are regenerate. This desire of the sinful nature,

Our “natures pursue” their own destruction by a compulsion “man is always desiring”.

Our nature is like a rat – which is a striking image – that ravin: ravin is an act of rapine, it is a greedy, thoughtless criminal desire and action – ravin down poison: a “proper bane,” that is, my own poison, the poison that is “proper” to me. It is a “thirsty evil”: it is never satisfied, never quenched. Moreover, this desire is such that fulfilling it brings its own destruction:

When we drink, we die.

Musically, the lines are held together by the use of R which picks up the R in restraint found in Lucio’s question and in the middle of Claudio’s answer:

Restraint – restraint – rats that ravin.

We have pursue-proper. And finally, drink-die.

The use of this imagery to illustrate and explain the psychological process which leads to self-destruction is very effective. It would have even more to the point for the original audience, who were faced constantly with the menace and evil of filthy rats. 

There is one final point in this observation: Shakespeare is condemning the audience along with the character’s self-condemnation. He is making a categorical statement about humanity: Our nature. When we drink, we die. 

Which means that as we read this, we are drawn into the scope of the play. It is our nature, our drinking, our death.