"Slip" in Measure for Measure
Jonathan Warner L-SAW 2006
The word "slip,"
though it appears only a few times, plays an interesting role in Shakespeare's Measure
for Measure. Spoken by a several different characters in a variety of
contexts throughout the play, "slip" suggests double meaning in certain lines
and foreshadows an important aspect of the play's outcome. But what is the
full purpose of the word's subtle implications? "Slip" is used in
Shakespeare's Measure for Measure to illustrate that a laxity toward
immorality prevails in the conclusion of the play despite motions to implement
more severe consequences for wrongdoing.
According to the OED,
"slip" had many different meanings during Shakespeare's era. In the four times
that Shakespeare uses the word in Measure for Measure, it takes on three
different OED definitions. First, in a dialogue between the Duke and
the Friar at the outset of the play, "slip" refers to failing to punish or
permitting to escape (definitions I 20b and 26b, OED). In discussing
the present condition of the penal system, the Duke says, "We have strict
statutes and most biting laws...Which for this fourteen years we have let slip"
(1.3.19-21). Here "slips" are instances where offenders have been spared the
just consequences of their wrongdoing. Secondly, in two scenes of the play, "slip"
refers to misconduct or a transgression (definition III 10a OED).
Isabella, in her plea to Angelo for Claudio's life, asserts "If he had been as
you, and you as he, you would have slipped like him" (2.2.64-65). She tells
Angelo that if he had been in Claudio's position he would have committed the
same sin--- "slipped" or sinfully given in to desire. "Slip" also refers to misconduct
or transgression in scene five. Escalus addresses Angelo after his hidden
hypocrisy is revealed saying, "I am sorry...you, Lord Angelo...should slip so
grossly..." (5.1.468-470). Again, "slip" paired with "grossly" indicates a fall
into serious error. Finally, in Isabella's conversation with Claudio in the
jail, "slip" is used to mean an "offshoot or outgrowth" of something
(definition I 1d). After he requests that she save his life by yielding to
Angelo, she berates him as "a warped slip of wilderness" (3.1.141). Because he
asks her to give up her virginity, she accuses him of being a "slip," something
foreign, unnatural, and shameful to their family, metaphorically, the rotten
branch of the family tree.
of the word "slip" as a noun and verb in Measure for Measure may seem to
be rather random and unimportant. However, "slip," particularly its use in
reference to immoral acts and a failure to prosecute wrongdoing, bears a great
significance in the play. These two different meanings of the word "slip" highlight
an important theme that surfaces in Act I and continues throughout the rest of
Using "slip" in
reference to transgressions not only implies the difficulty in maintaining moral
footholds on the slick slopes of iniquity, but also hints at the future treatment
of characters' immoral acts. Early in the play, several characters discuss the
need for a long overdue crackdown on rampant wrongdoing in their domain. As
the play unfolds, "slips" such as adultery, prostitution, and gross hypocrisy
are brought to light, but, in the end, they do not receive the long overdue
castigation that is promised at the beginning of the play. While a few
characters have some responsibility for their actions imposed upon them at the
conclusion of the play, many of them, chiefly Angelo, Pompey, Claudio, and
Juliet, do not receive just punishment for their wrongs.
"slip" in reference to his characters' moral mistakes to make a connection
between their moral "slips" and the initial meaning of the word "slip" in the
play---that of making a getaway or escaping without prosecution. With the
subtle connection, he delicately indicates before the end of the play that his
characters' transgressions (slips) will evade (slip) their proper punishment.
"Slips" continue to "slip" and the planned effort to reverse the penal system's
trend of allowing wrongdoing to go unpunished fails.
The word "slip,"
used in its different contexts, illustrates an apathy toward misdeeds within
the penal system of Shakespeare's play that contributes to ultimate injustice. In
one sense, evil deeds triumph because they do not receive their due punishment.
The play's title, "Measure for Measure," seems contradictory since no single
character receives an exact measure for the measure he commits. Even Isabella for
all her emphatic demands never gets her "justice, justice, justice, justice" (5.1.25).
Yet the glaring inconsistency of "slips" being allowed to "slip" does not
dominate the conclusion. In the style of the word that indicates it, the
persisting problem of punitive leniency slips past the reader's notice while a final
liberal distribution of mercy creates a pleasing diversion.