Tuesday, February 9, 2010


By Joel Friedman

The First Folio. Measure for Measure, 111.i:

Isabella. This outward fainted deputie,

Whose settled vifage, and deliberate word

Nips youth i’th head, and follies doth emmew

As Falcon doth the Fowle, is yet a diuell:

His filth within being cast, he would appeare

A pond, as deepe as hell,

Claudio. The prenzie, Angelo?

Isabella. Oh ‘tis the cunning liuerie of hell,

The damnest bodie to inuest, and cover

In prenzie gardes:

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989:

prenzie. a, obs. A doubtful word…probably an error.

The Yale Shakespeare, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1926:

There has been no satisfactory elucidation of the word’s meaning. The context seems to require a meaning akin to ‘puritanical’ or ‘prim’. Hotson, however, believes that prenzie is Shakespeare’s translation of the now obsolete Italian word for prince (prenze) and the prenzie guards means therefore ‘prince-robes’, clothes with rich trimming. The explanation is not very convincing.

New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, Gr. Br., 1991:

Prenzie: This crux still resists solution; F2’s emendation ‘princely’ and Tieck’s ‘precise’ are possible, the latter orthographically more plausible, the former attractive for its irony: but Collier supposed Shakespeare introduced the Italian word for ‘prince’, ‘prenze’ and this if unlikely cannot be ruled out with certainty. ‘Precise’ was often applied to Puritans in the sense ‘strict, scrupulous’ (OED). Perhaps ‘prenze’ is Shakespeare’s coinage, fusing ‘princely’ and ‘precise’?

The Arden Shakespeare, Routledge, London, New York, 1988:

The precise Angelo!

O ‘tis the cunning livery of hell

The damned’st body to invest and cover

In precise guards!

precise Angelo!...precise guards! Collier suggested prenze and Br. Nicholson, N & Q (1883) 464, described ‘prenzie’ (F) as an English adjective from the old Italian word used by Boccaccio and others, prenze alias prence, a prince or ruler. L Hotson (TLS, 22 Nov. 1947) mentions that prenze appears in Florio (1611) and compares the formation ‘prenzie’ with ‘countie’, from Italian conte ‘count’. But the word was certainly obscure, or it would not have been changed in F2 (princely). It is even less likely as an adjective with ‘guards’. ‘Precise’ could have been misread as ‘prenzie’, was sometimes accented on the first syllable (with ‘i’ normally pronounced as in French), and makes good sense in the second instance.

In considering the Arden’s choice of ‘precise’, several objections become evident:

a. It is used by the Duke in a highly complimentary context

1.3.11. 50-51:

Duke. Lord Angelo is precise;

Stands at a guard with Envy;

And earlier in his colloquy with Escalus,

1.i.11. 19-24:

Duke. Lent him our terror, drest him in our love,

And given his deputation all the organs

Of our own power. What think you of it?

Esc. If any in Vienna be of worth

To undergo such ample grace and honour,

It is Lord Angelo.

Isabella and Claudio, however, have had vastly different experiences. They have been threatened with dire punishments. The one with loss of virginity, the other with loss of life. It is most likely that ‘precise’ for the Duke holds the same meaning as ‘precise’ for them.

b. Its accent is on the second syllable which halts the rhythm of the speech in the Claudio/Isabella exchange.

c. To use a similar word or expression with disparate, unrelated meaning results in audience confusion.

The word, whichever it may be, is introduced by Claudio in response to Isabella’s severe depiction of Angelo as a hypocrite ‘outward sainted’, a murderer ‘nips youth i’th head’ and a devil. It is unlikely that he would respond with ‘priestly’ or even in its wide generic sense as ‘princely’. He would choose and expression that reflects what specifically disturbs him about Angelo:

Arden Shakespeare, I.2.11.154-160:

Claudio. But this new governor

Awakes me all the enrolled penalties

Which have, like unscour’d armour, hung by the wall

So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round,

And none of them been worn; and for a name*

Now puts the drowsy and neglected act

Freshly on me: ‘tis surely for a name.*

’tis surely for a name’ suggests that arrogance and self-promotion are conveyed in the disputed word Claudio introduced as a response to Isabella’s scalding characterization of Angelo, and with which she eagerly agrees.

In the Postscript to Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of MidLothian there is the following passage:

Helen Walker was held among her equals pensy, that is proud or conceited…

The Oxford English Dictionary:

Pensy, a. Now Scot. and dial. Giving oneself airs, self-conceited.

Dictionary of the Scots Language:

Conceited, overweening, ‘stuck-up’…

What, however, is strikingly significant is that the word ‘pensy’ is used in respect to clothing:

…of things, esp. clothes: neat, well-care-for, smart…

‘Guard’ has a double meaning: to defend, protect (in this instance, a reputation); and to preserve the edge of clothing by preventing it from fraying. Earlier it had been noted that ‘guard’ was used in its first meaning:

Duke: Lord Angelo is precise,

And stands at a guard with Envy; i.e. in a swordsman’s position of defense.

By use of ‘pensy’ Claudio in characterizing the deputy as the arrogant, the self-promoting Angelo, is expressing his animosity. Isabella’s vehement response augments the argument by employing the double meaning of ‘guard’, and by preparing ‘pensy’ in its association with clothing thus attaining the culminating epithet, ‘pensy guards’.

Cl. The self-serving, the conceited Angelo?

Is. Oh ‘tis the cunning livery of hell,

The damnest body to clothe and conceal

His appearance in proper, well-preserved clothing

So as to camouflage his arrogance and self-conceit.

The First Folio, Introduction p. xviii, the Norton Facsimili,

W. W. Norton, New York, 1968, Charlton Hinman, Ed.

The work didn’t always go smoothly. One or the other of the partners was fairly often required elsewhere for at least a short time. When this happened

* My italics

either the remaining compositor carried on alone…or another partner took the place of the absentee.

There were then ample opportunities for lapses and inconsistencies to occur as in the case of ‘prenzie’. Of the three traditional attempts at emendation: precise, princely, and priestly-pensy is closest in pronunciation. In working together is it not unlikely that one man may have dictated to the other, and the word ‘prenzie’ was not misread but misheard?

ã 2009

1 comment:

  1. I like the exegesis very much. But from an actor's point of view, the most important thing is that the word means something to the brother and sister--no matter what it may mean to the audience. Siblings share language, ideas, short-cuts, code words. For me, this is a moment of collusion, of connection, that very shortly will be severed in a most serious fashion. Right after this exchange, Isabella decides to tell Claudio the truth about what Angelo intends, and that leads to Claudio's faint-heartedness in facing death, which leads to Isabella's denial of her brother. So, dramatically, "prenzie" is the closest the two get and brilliantly Shakespeare uses language (naturally) to demonstrate that closeness. Then all hell breaks loose (in Claudio's big speech that arrives soon after this exchange)!
    Great play, great comment, Joel!