Ay, but to die and go
we know not where

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling --- 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Measure for Measure,
Act III, Scene 1

Few readers or auditors will fall to respond to the power of this passage, and it is typical of Shakespeare that there should occur, in the midst of his treatment of a topic so universal that he might have used the plainest language, words to make one stop and ask what they are doing there: "sensible," motion," "delighted," "viewless." Sometimes this slightly estranging effect arises from differences between the sense of the words in Shakespeare's time and ours: "sensible" here is related to one meaning of "sense" in the play at large, the sensory (and sensual) equipment of the living body. One sense of "motion" is a puppet, so that there is a concealed paradox, a puppet with sense organs; another is a usage complimentary to works of art (comeliness, grace, spirit, etc.) and here applicable to life; another is animation, reflecting the joy of having a body that can be moved and controlled; yet another is, simply, emotion, another property of living beings. "Motion" is a rich way of talking about the living human body. The strangeness of the word is what makes one think around it in this way.

"Delighted" strikes one as the oddest of these words, since the context makes it plain that the spirit is not, in any modern sense of the word, delighted. Can it be a nonce word, de-lighted, deprived of light? Hammer emended it to "dilated"; Johnson, rather weakly if one may say so, to "delinquent."

Finally, "viewless" is "invisible;" its force comes partly from the chime with "restless" in the next line. Editors add that to be blown around the earth in this way was considered the punishment of people who were too fond of the pleasures of the body, so the guilty Claudio might think himself qualified for that fate, like Paolo and Francesca in Dante. "Pendant" adds to the horror of the idea, the earth suspended in space as the sinners whirl around it.

What is meant by "lawless and incertain thought?" One editor says the passage "is not susceptible of satisfactory explanation," and this may be true; thoughts of hell were "incertain" perhaps, but not "lawless." The effect is still to make the familiar general sentiment a little strange, to stop the reader a moment.

From Shakespeare's Language,
©Frank Kermode
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2000)

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