Measure for Measure
Isabella’s compassion shines powerfully, undimmed by this sordid world. In her impassioned pleas first for the life of Claudio and then Angelo, Isabella reveals a true understanding of her Christian morals and compassion. Indeed, she entreats Angelo for Claudio’s life – “Spare him! Spare him!” – with the great number of exclamation marks translating into a more firm and exclamatory delivery, accentuating her strong feelings for her brother. Though, Shakespeare reveals that Isabella is not truly convinced that Claudio’s crime is forgivable, for she believes that he has engaged in a “vice [that she] does most abhor.” Thus, Isabella is portrayed as a caring individual, who is even willing to campaign on behalf of others even for a cause that she does not believe in. Likewise, when she consoles Claudio compassionately, promising him “perpetual durance” in “high heaven”, Shakespeare positions Isabella as the chief comfort to Claudio, further exposing her altruistic demeanour. Moreover, while Isabella labels Angelo as a “pernicious caitiff deputy” and claims that she “will pluck out his eyes” conveying only hatred and desire for vengeance, in a dramatic contrast to those earlier lines, she kneels to beg for the pardoning of Angelo in response to Mariana’s pleas. Hence, even though she was provided with an opportunity to take revenge – “he dies for Claudio’s death” – which for Isabella, would have been justified, she instead spares him, illustrating that she is capable of mercy and forgiveness to even those who submit her to psychological trauma. Shakespeare reveals that Isabella does this entirely for Mariana out of true Christian compassion, who, while must entreat her multiple times – “Sweet Isabel, do yet but kneel by me” – only serves to accentuate her great heart, for she follows through without any sense of personal gain. Hence, Shakespeare exposes Isabella as harbouring ungrudging forgiveness and a true understanding of her Christian ideals, presenting her as exceedingly compassionate.
Yet, while Shakespeare’s construction of Isabella as the paradigm of purity and virtue within a city plagued by the moral decadence of hedonistic and licentious pursuits through her self-restraint is to be commended, he ultimately reveals the flaws of such an attempt, thus leaving her ignorant of her own human frailty. Indeed, Isabella’s opening lines, juxtaposed with the morally waning scenes of Vienna and the Duke’s machinations, elucidates her morality and righteousness as she is “wishing a more strict restraint” within the already very uncompromising “cloister” of “Saint Clare” which was sworn to observe poverty and silence. But, beneath this seemingly courageous attempt to escape the constricting and toxic society of Vienna by committing to a chaste life, Shakespeare reveals that she is so invested within this idea of herself as infallible that she eventually capitulates to her emotional turmoil and vehemently castigates Claudio – “O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch”. She commands him to “be ready…for death” – with the simplicity and emotionless nature of the phrase “be ready” presenting death as something which Claudio must embrace. This comment ironically echoes Angelo’s rhetoric, who remarks that Claudio “dies tomorrow, be content”, revealing how under threat of losing her dignity, she embraces the harsh language of the likewise absolutist Angelo. Even when Claudio desperately beseeches her to “hear [him]” not once, but twice, Isabella forcibly silences his pleading with a violent repetition of “fie!”. Shakespeare seems to suggest that this outburst, both uncharacteristic and ideologically inconsistent with her devotion to ideals of forgiveness, stems from her excessive self-restraint. While we cannot her condemn her mentality that of “giving up [her] body” as tantamount to death, for such an idea would have invoked admiration for her defiance and pathos from a Jacobean audience in their acknowledgement of her eternal damnation if she had relented, her treatment of Claudio is undoubtedly brash and deviant from the ideals that nuns were supposed to uphold. Therefore, Shakespeare conveys that Isabella’s outrage, while understandable, is a manifestation of her own natural frailty and naivety towards her own humanity.
Depressingly, Shakespeare subjects Isabella to the sinister advances of men bent on not only using, but also destroying the “sanctuary” she is so desperate to protect, invoking the utmost sympathy for her. Even her brother Claudio cannot help but prioritise her physical appearance, complimenting “her youth” before her “prone and speechless dialect”, which inherently suggests that her intellect and capacity to reason is a mere afterthought. Perhaps, Claudio is cynically aware that her most powerful weapon in a world where women must “weep and kneel” for “their petitions” is not her wisdom, but rather her submissive and aesthetic appearance, thereby prompting sympathy. More significantly however, while Angelo’s ruthless subjugation of Isabella renders him despicable, it only serves to heighten the tragedy, and thus sympathy for Isabella, as she is in no way responsible for stirring Angelo’s base desires. Angelo seemingly preys on her, coveting her “foully for those things that make her good” – an act which is highly conducive to the brutal trivialisation of Isabella’s purity. Indeed, a Jacobean audience would have interpreted his question of whether he should “raze the sanctuary and pitch [his] evils there” to be egregious, for the “sanctuary” did not only refer to her virginity, but also the sacrilegious act of violating the church, which is in direct contrast to Isabella’s presentation through a lexicon of theology – “grace”, “mercy”, “heaven”. The objectification of women is also apparent when Angelo demands Isabella to “lay down the treasures of [her] body”, suggesting that women are merely commodities which can be plundered by men. Ultimately, rather than restrict himself, Angelo allows his urges unlimited expression, giving his “sensual race the rein” and employing his totalitarian power to facilitate his carnal desires. Thus, Shakespeare paints Isabella as a helpless and powerless woman who is at the mercy of a male dominated society and is therefore fully deserving of the compassion of the audience.
Subsequently, Isabella is presented as a pious individual with strong moral principles till the very end, where she ultimately becomes crushed by the deep entrenchment of Vienna as a highly patriarchal society. Indeed, even though she is able to courageously stand against the hypocrisy of Angelo and powerfully refuse to “stoop to such abhorred pollution”, when she threatens to “tell the world aloud” of Angelo’s atrocious deeds, Angelo, in a blatant and unbridled exhibition of hubris, simply reinforces the power of his “unsoil’d name”. But, unshaken by such disparagement, Isabella relentlessly attempts to inform the Duke of her “true complaint” in search of “justice, justice, justice, justice”. Though, the repetition of “justice” perhaps ironically foreshadows the absence of such an ideal in Vienna, and that she is vainly attempting to establish herself in a world which has already dismissed her opinion due to her gender. Notably, in a sharp contrast to her earlier, more vivacious and passionate lines, faced with the Duke’s undeniably problematic public offer to “give me your hand”, Isabella’s deafening silence connotates not only a metaphorical representation of the lack of an autonomous existence for women, highlighting the loss of her independence and intrinsic value if she relented, but also the disheartening fact that the voice of women is not valued. Therefore, while Isabella is presented as being vanquished, invoking sympathy for her, a modern audience – who would have seen her plight to be a consequence of the domineering nature of men – may also interpret her silence as a mark of her unswerving morality: a firm resistance to patriarchal expectations and an adherence to her pious devotion to remain “chaste”. Ultimately, through her silence, Isabella seemingly attempts to summon whatever power she has left to oppose the oppression of women, cementing her as a morally upright character, though tragically, also affirming her lack of power to change the mentality of those around her.
Shakespeare’s grim image of Vienna as a city plagued by the moral decadence of hedonistic and licentious attitudes affirms that negligence for a states’ subjects leads to the widespread abuse of its laws, suggesting that governments cannot govern through laxity – they must enforce laws. The Duke’s adoption of the “lenity to lechery” policy is symptomatic of the degeneration of Vienna into an anarchic license, where the “baby beats the nurse” and “liberty plucks justice by the nose” – metaphors illustrating the inversion of the natural order. In fact, the city has deteriorated to such an extent that the populace are no longer talking about the pleasures of fornication, but rather its after-effects: syphilis. Lucio, the representative figure and emissary of the seamy underworld, is portrayed in a lecherous manner as he dabbles in jovial vernacular regarding prostitution, comedically speaking of the physical decay – “hollow” bones – serving as a metonymy for the moral atrophy which has consumed the state. Thus, through such astute comments, he critiques the moral turpitude embedded within Vienna, indicating the omnipresence of debauchery – “the vice…is impossible to extrip…till eating and drinking are put down”. However, not only has “impiety made a feast of thee”, but the legal system has been rendered laughable. The ineffectuality of the legal system is articulated through the comic incompetency of Elbow, whose willingness to “do it for some piece of money” effectively leads to the appointment of an impotent officer of justice. His imbecilic inarticulacy when arresting Pompey reveals his humorous malapropisms, including his paradoxical reference to the occupants of a “naughty house” as “notorious benefactors” and his inability to distinguish between “respected” and “suspected”, satirises the impotence of the legal system when it is not enforced. Therefore, due to the lack of enforcement of the laws, Vienna has descended into chaos, accentuating the necessity for a government to be present to uphold moral integrity.
While an overly lax rule brings corruption, through Shakespeare’s adoption of the conventional comedic tension between Apollonian and Dionysian forces, respectively representing the values of order and chaos, he elucidates that a government’s adherence to absolutist values is reductive and by no means salubrious. Depicted as a “precise” and puritanical leader, whose “snow-broth” blood inhibits the “wanton stings and motion of sense”, Angelo is the epitome of restraint, exposing his tyrannous extremism through the immediate and draconian-like enforcement of old laws against fornication in a somewhat futile attempt to curb the “headstrong weeds” of Vienna. The inefficacy of his approach is accentuated through Pompey’s sardonic remarks, placing Angelo’s rigidity alongside the hyperbolically gruesome imagery “to geld and splay all the youth of the city”, aptly capturing the absurdity and unfeasibility of such an inflexible approach to justice. Therefore, Shakespeare suggests that such absolutism would merely result in the transformation of a society into a prison, with Claudio’s incarceration serving as a metonymy for the imprisonment of the entire human race, for it is farcical to restrict our innate humanistic traits. But initially, Angelo is seemingly impervious to the impulses of human nature, denying the vulnerability of his soul to temptation, which is not only dogmatic, but “ignorant”. Subsequently, through his dramatic fall from grace, succumbing violently to his repressed appetite and sexual urges, Shakespeare uses Angelo as a metaphor for the failings of his excessively strict approach to justice. Additionally, despite his harsh implementation of Vienna’s “most biting laws”, the laws are still subverted by not only those in elevated positions of power, who are able to ensure the perpetuation of brothels with a “wise burgher”, but also plebeians like Mistress Overdone, who continue to operate underground. Ultimately, Shakespeare asserts that an absolutist interpretation of the law, insensitive to inherent human compulsions, is merely an animalistic mode of governance and ineffective at solving the moral turpitude within Vienna.
Subsequently, having condemned both a lax and absolutist approach, Shakespeare seemingly advocates for a balanced consideration of justice to control human behaviour, where punitive measures are tempered with chances of redemption. In particular, while Escalus’ allowance for Pompey to “continue in his course” of prostitution leaves him vulnerable to criticism due to the apparent ineffectual nature of dissuading Pompey from his hedonistic pursuits, for immediately after his discharge he turns to a dogmatic aside proclaiming to “let carmen whip his jade, the valiant heart’s not whipped out of this trade”, Shakespeare demonstrates that such abuses of a “pardon” do not go unpunished. Thus, in a stark contrast to Pompey’s sly confidence, which is enhanced by the rhyming couplet “jade” and “trade”, rendering his declaration to “follow it as flesh and fortune better determine” to be an unhampered pursuit of personal indulgence, he is later subdued, incapable of escaping his ultimate “imprisonment”. The value of Christian redemption is then further elucidated through the pardoning of Barnardine. Even though he is a morally repugnant villain who has been “in prison for nine years” circumventing the laws by “drinking all night” and not consenting “to die this day”, the Duke surprisingly offers him clemency. Perhaps, the Duke believes that without the prospect of execution that Barnardine will take this opportunity “to provide for better times to come”, repenting his sins and thereby becoming a better man. Although the Duke must take a leap of faith, in doing so, he provides Barnardine with an opportunity for change and a chance at growth, providing him with a second chance. Thus, Mariana offers the audience an insightful message that “all men are moulded out of faults” and become “better” for being a “little bad”, conjuring the notion that “we are all frail”, accentuating that a measured approach to governance between mercy and retribution is the most effective way of guiding the human spirit.
While the denouement of the play is optimistic that the best method of governance is by tempering retribution and mercy, Shakespeare seemingly undermines such qualities with a leader’s flagrant desecration of institutionalised marriage, which is otherwise meant to be wholly sacrosanct, to further his own rationale. Indeed, the Duke’s rulings are ultimately polluted by their association with his corrupt authority, suggesting that the law ultimately can never truly be effective when run by fallible mortals. Through the marriages of Angelo and Lucio, both are given a merciful adjudication which embodies punishment and forgiveness. For a Jacobean audience, the Christian ideal of marital unity yields a balance both in terms of the civic fairness to the victims and the perpetrators, as well as serving as a punishment, which though not punitive, is appropriately just as “pressing to death, whipping and hanging”. Yet, the Duke’s proposal to Isabella, despite his previous claims that “the dribbling dart of love” cannot “pierce [his] complete bosom”, raises significant doubt over his true motives. The syntactical proximity of the Duke’s proposal immediately following Claudio’s release serves to convey a sinister undertone, as if Isabella would be compelled to marry the Duke in return. Not to mention, his meticulous prioritisation of her chastity through the employment of the bed-trick and his constant references to Isabella’s “grace”, “beauty” and “complexion” highlights a perverse focus on her physicality, affirming that the Duke’s scheming has been strongly driven by his attraction to her. Thus, the Duke’s revocation of Angelo’s death sentence – “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death” – and his exhibition of an “apt remission” begs to question whether his acts of mercy were genuine, or rather, merely an appeal towards Isabella’s strong Christian virtues. In essence, it is no wonder that Measure for Measure is often considered a ‘problem play’, for the Duke’s acts of mercy appear to be heavily contrived, depriving the play of an orthodox ‘happy ending’. What little closure Shakespeare offers, through the final congregation of all the characters in a “public space near the city gate”, is taken away by the Duke’s invitation back inside his “palace”, rendering the rather casuistic reconciliations that transpire, which radiate forth a notion of a “good government”, to be fallacious.
The Duke’s agenda is underscored by sinister intentions and a “dark” mysteriousness in his character, rendering him as being far from an ideal leader. In the exposition, the Duke’s commencing rhetoric concerning the “properties” of governance is markedly convoluted and filled with knotted syntax. Thus, his remark – “would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse” – is suggestive of a man obfuscating the true nature of his intentions by marring his outward appearance with confusion. The manifestation of his dubious motivations materialise through the expedient abrogation of his ducal authority and bestowment of the puritanical Angelo with absolute power, dismissing the implications of abdicating his position with an offhanded excuse, that “my haste will not allow it”. And herein, the validity of the Duke’s decision to relegate his power is suspect, for not only is this choice conferred despite the greater candidate of Escalus being “as pregnant in as art and practice”, with the word “pregnant” generating an image of fullness, highlighting his experience in the matters of the state, but even Angelo requests for “some more test made of [his] mettle”. Additionally, this appointment is made despite the Duke’s complete cognisance of Angelo’s suspicious “character” and “history” stemming from his mistreatment of Mariana five years prior, thereby urging the audience to consider whether the Duke orchestrated the “substitution” of Angelo knowing that he would capitulate to his inherent human urges. Indeed, Shakespeare’s adoption of the rhyming couplet “hence shall we see, if power changes purpose, what our seemers be”, immediately following his supposed interest in restoring the “decorum” of Vienna interwoven with the repetition of the word “unfold” alludes to his ulterior motive of observing Angelo’s intense fall from his puritanical pretence. Thus, in portraying the Duke as a character with dubious motivations, Shakespeare calls into question the morality of even the most powerful and heavenly ordained leaders.
Although the Duke hands over his state power, his movements after assuming religious power through the veneer of a Friar are uncharacteristic of an ideal leader, begging all sorts of moral uncertainties regarding the legitimacy of his ploys. Traditionally, while state power only had rule over the outward actions of subjects, religious power could extend itself into the inner intents of their hearts, thereby giving the Duke a greater perception of the affairs of Vienna, elevating himself to a position capable of moderating, mediating and most importantly, manipulating. Hence, the Duke is effectively rendered omnipotent – almost as if an invisible playwright – which pays homage to Lucio’s characterisation of him as “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners”. Even though the Duke forgoes his Christian ideals in assuming this disguise, alluding to his questionable morals, he appears to reveal in this new form of authority, which allows him to privy into the secrets of his citizens and to move around covertly. Thus, Shakespeare invites his Jacobean audience under the influence of Christianity to condemn the Duke’s ethics for impersonating “a man of comfort” who is designated to console “the afflicted spirits” with his holy and genuine advice, instead, to fulfil his own “grave and wrinkled” purpose – a deceptive plan which stands in sharp contrast to the holy obligations of a Friar. Indeed, the absence of any Christian hope and redemption when he imposes himself upon the personal lives of Claudio and Juliet, instead subjecting them to immense psychological traumas is certainly notable The quick succession of the Duke telling Claudio “to be absolute for death” and his belittling imperatives to “teach”, “arraign” and “try” Juliet’s “penitence” force her to have no choice but to submissively “confess” and “repent”, rendering his actions tyrannical – an erratic oppression of already vulnerable individuals. Clearly, the Duke’s pseudo-Christian guise is amoral, as if he is purposefully entertaining himself with the suffering of his citizens.
While Angelo’s adherence to tyrannous extremism is inherently flawed, his strict enforcement of the law is a testament to his genuine desire to restore law and order, presenting him as being well-intentioned. Indeed, due to the pessimistic circumstances of his ascension, in which he faces a seemingly insoluble dilemma of the consequences stemming from the Duke’s overt laxity, whose adoption of “lenity to lechery” has led to the degeneration of Vienna into an anarchic licence, miring the Viennese society, his brash application of the law, to some extent can be excused. In attempting to reinstate the “strict statues and most biting laws” in a world where “liberty plucks justice by the nose”, he is adamant in ensuring that the laws do not become a “scarecrow” for criminals to “perch” – a genuine fear that the laws have become impotent. In doing so, while Claudio’s penalty is an excessively austere punishment for a mere technicality, Angelo is driven by a sincere intention to dispel the “mocked” status of the law in favour of deterring potential lawbreakers. Moreover, while this may be problematised by both Lucio’s claims that he merely “pick’d out an act” to make a “name” for himself and the Justice’s declaration that Angelo’s application of the law is “severe”, even Escalus, for all his wisdom, laments that there is “no remedy” available to Angelo to balance “mercy” with the necessity of a law severe enough to prevent Vienna’s descent into further turmoil. However, while Angelo’s lack of “temperate judgement”, believing almost religiously in the abstract statues and laws of the city – “it is the law, not I, condemn” Claudio – is worthy of disapproval, Shakespeare presents this belief as an intrinsic limitation of Angelo, and therefore, his rule must be at least partially excused as a consequence of the human condition.
[But behind Angelo’s apparent good intentions, his very austerity coupled with the suppression of human feelings catalyses his intense fall from grace, resulting in his reprehensible tyranny. Angelo takes such immense pride in his reputation as a man of “firm stricture and abstinence” that it preoccupies his personality. Even when Escalus warns Angelo of the dangers of his strictness, arguing that he may have “erred in this point which now [he] censures” Claudio, he refuses to acknowledge that such a tendency could inhibit him, replying sanctimoniously that “tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall”. Thus, Angelo’s irrational perception of himself as infallible and morally incorruptible – a product of extreme self-denial – foreshadows his inevitable submission to the “concupiscible intemperate lust”.] Indeed, Angelo’s he seemingly preys upon Isabella, coveting her “foully for those things that make her good” – an act which is highly conducive to the brutal trivialisation of Isabella’s purity. [The harsh and rough language employed by Shakespeare in the propositioning of Isabella further exposes his abusive and domineering nature, with the fracturing of his “precise” speech with broken, irregular rhythms, incessant questions and the violence of the sexual imagery accentuating that he has become overwhelmed by the accumulation of his suppressed desires.] A Jacobean audience would have interpreted his question of whether he should “raze the sanctuary and pitch [his] evils there” to be egregious, for the “sanctuary” did not only refer to her virginity, but also the sacrilegious act of violating the church, which is in direct contrast to Isabella’s presentation through a lexicon of theology – “grace”, “mercy”, “heaven”. Rather than restrict himself, Angelo allows his urges unlimited expression, giving his “sensual race the rein” and employing his totalitarian power to facilitate his carnal desires, signifying his total capitulation to his temptation. [Thus, Shakespeare paints Isabella as a helpless and powerless woman who is at the mercy of a male dominated society and in doing so, deconstructs Angelo’s cold approach and puritanical façade.]