Duke: Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. … (Act. 1 Sc. 1)
Lucio: Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (Act 1, c. 4)
Angelo: … ‘Tis very pregnant [natural],
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take’t
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it. (Act 2, Sc. 1)
These are statements in the form of generalizations about human beings. They come from the first two acts of Measure for Measure. The form–a maxim about us–is not unusual in Shakespeare. (Cf. Kent in Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,” and many other examples.) But the frequency seems notably high near the beginning of this play.
In Measure for Measure, the main pair of lovers is guilty of “fornication,” which is a capital offense in the fictionalized setting of Vienna. No one in the play doubts that premarital sex is wrong. The question is whether it is inevitable because of human nature. Lucio claims that fornication is “impossible to extirp … till eating and drinking be put down.” He argues that laws against fornication would prevent the species from reproducing. Speaking of the Puritanical tyrant Angelo, Lucio says: “this ungenitured agent will unpeople the province with continency; sparrows must not build in his house-eaves, because they are lecherous.” (Again cf. Lear: “The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly / Does lecher in my sight.”)
Since Lucio is himself a lecher and a hypocrite, his view is hardly authoritative. But the holy and chaste Isabella has a more persuasive argument against inflexible rules. “Man,” she says, is an “unwedgeable and gnarled oak” (Act 2, sc. 2). She sounds like Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This is an argument against inflexible laws.
In short, the explicit question facing the characters in Measure for Measure is about human nature; hence the drumbeat of maxims near the beginning. In addressing that question, the characters must remain within the bounds of Christan thought. Their community has friars and nuns, and Isabella is a source of orthodox theological wisdom. Christians may argue about freedom and original sin, but they cannot claim that all laws and moral strictures are arbitrary human conventions.*
That is why Lear makes an interesting comparison. Its setting is explicitly pagan. Major characters are cast out of society onto the natural heath, where a person is just a “poor, bare, forked animal.” The King (albeit, when mad) comes to see all laws as oppressive conventions. The possibility opens up that life is meaningless: “Ripeness is all.”
Following Stanley Cavell, I think Lear demonstrates that one should not ask general questions about human nature and the purposes of human life. Those questions will yield nihilistic conclusions that are really excuses for avoiding emotional connections and responsibilities for other people. That is a view derived from Montaigne and ancient skeptics. It’s not really acceptable in Christian Vienna, where institutions are derived from providence, and souls are destined for salvation.
*No one uses the word God in Measure for Measure–instead “Jove” is used–but I presume that is because of scruples about taking the Lord’s name in vain on the stage. Also, the setting appears to be Catholic, even though Catholicism was illegal in Shakespeare’s England. Still, the characters are recognizably Christian.