Strategic opacity

When reading Measure for Measure for the first time I remember being puzzled by the Duke’s decision to leave his position and assign a deputy. It may still be incomprehensible to us from our 21st century perspective that a politician and ruler would do that. However, we need to remember that Duke has a very important “structural role” in the construction of the play (Smith, 2007, pp.4-7). Without his ‘abdication’, the plot would not be able to develop. Moreover, I think we need to consider that the scenario of the disguise of social condition, which is what the Duke does, as well as the bed trick, that is also employed in the play,  come from a long Italian comic theatrical tradition ( commedia dell’arte). As Gay (2008, p.5) reminds us, Shakespeare would be familiar with such material through companies of European actors that would travel to London and would have no qualms in using and changing them to fit his own purposes in his plays.

Baffling in their incongruities and in their astonishing lack of self-awareness as the characters in the play are, they in fact illustrate Shakespeare’s capacity of creating characters and situations that are profoundly ambiguous. The strategy of presenting both sides of an argument – in the case of Measure for Measure, anarchy and authoritarianism, law and desire (Eagleton, 1986, pp.48–57) – has its roots in the rhetorical debate tradition with which Shakespeare would be familiar though his classical education.

Greenblatt’s concept of ‘strategic opacity’ (2004, pp. 323–324) is an interesting and theoretically powerful idea that condenses in the term the ambiguity and apparent inconsistencies in the characters and plot development that generate the greatest debates around the plays. The idea that Shakespeare deliberately constructed the characters as puzzles that cannot be finally solved just confirms the experiences we have when trying to find a solution for the Isabella’s heartlessness, Othello’s culpability, or the issue of responsibility in Macbeth. These are ultimately unanswerable questions and rightly so because great part of the pleasure we derive from watching the plays over and over again is to try to come up with our own partial answers. That Shakespeare has designed the plays to be so attest for his geniality and his understanding of what engages the audiences.


  • Gay, P. (2008) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Greenblatt, S. (2004) Will in the World. How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. London: Pimlico.
  • Smith, E. (2007) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.