Sunday, May 10, 2009

Measure for Measure: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made–Immanuel Kant

Can people be improved by appropriate legislation? Can morality be

legislated? What happens when the secular arm intrudes on the

jurisdiction of the Church by outlawing sin? If some such questions as

these were running through Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote

Measure For Measure, he would not have had to look very far for modern

instances. Calvinism was a political ideology as well as a theology

of spiritual salvation, and wherever it took power, in Scotland for

example, or in the Swiss city of Geneva, sinful activities, customs and

amusements became punishable offences. Closer to home, the English

Calvinists—or Puritans—had been trying for years to have the theaters

shut down, because they judged, rightly, that the theaters were in

competition with the Church for control of the nation’s values and

imagination. (In the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, one

only has to change the word ‘church’ to ‘state’ to arrive at similar confrontations.)

The Duke of Vienna, in Measure For Measure, confronts a muddle

of his own making (the first of many). Nineteen years years ago, it

had occurred to him that he really ought to do something about his

subjects’ morals. Fornication, he thought, should become a capital

offense; a law, accordingly, had been passed to that effect. But then he

changed his mind or lost his nerve: the Duke never enforced his new

law; nor did he repeal it. Now, as the play begins, the Duke, who is of

a vaguely philosophical turn of mind, is wondering what will happen

when his old law is enforced—as it should be since it is still on the

books—but not by him: this task is to be entrusted to his hyper-virtuous

deputy, Angelo. Here, then, is the Duke’s question: What happens

when we pass a law against sin, and hand over the task of enforcing

it to a man who has not only never sinned himself but thinks he is

incapable of sinning? “Lord Angelo is precise,” says the Duke to his

only accomplice and confidant, Friar Thomas, and

Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses

That his blood flows; or that his appetite

Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see

If power change purpose: what our seemers be. I.3.54

This experiment begins to go wrong right from the start. The first victim

of the old law, now newly enforced, is not the bawd, Pompey, or

the acknowledged rake, Lucio, but an honorable man, Claudio, who is

virtually married to the woman, Juliet, whom he has got with child.

The letter of the law, not the spirit, has been violated. The first of several

surprises, this is almost certainly not what the Duke had had in

mind. It gets worse when Claudio sends his beautiful sister, Isabella,

to Angelo to intercede for him, and the Duke’s question is answered,

again in a way he does not expect. Angelo, who has had little experience

with women, finds much to his surprise that he is aroused by

Isabella’s purity of mind and purpose. And the more passionate she

becomes in her defense of her brother, prodded by her brother’s friend,

Lucio, the more deeply is Angelo aroused. (Lucio might almost be a

bawd in this scene: “You are too are too cold... Ay, touch

him, there’s the vein...O to him, to him, wench!...He’s coming...”)

Fully aroused, Angelo offers Isabella a deal: if she will sleep with him,

he will save her brother’s life. When she threatens to expose this villainous

proposition, he shrugs: Go ahead. It’ll be your word against

mine. Who will believe you?

Meanwhile, the Duke in his friar’s outfit has been visiting Claudio

in prison to prepare him for death. If he has any thought of preventing

this gross miscarriage of his own system of criminal justice, it does

not appear. 

The Duke’s speech, “Be absolute for death” (III.1.5-41) is

a wonderful performance, eloquently explaining why life is not worth

making a fuss about and why death is to be welcomed, not feared. It is

by no means a Christian sermon, for it makes no mention of God or

Jesus or Claudio’s immortal soul. Since the Duke does not want to disturb

Claudio but to calm him down, these omissions may be intentional.

In any case, the Duke’s sermon has its intended effect. Claudio

seems content to die on the Duke’s terms: “I humbly thank you./ To sue

to live, I find I seek to die,/ and seeking death, find life. Let it come on.”


Then Isabella comes in and the Duke withdraws, intending to

listen in on Isabella’s conversation with her brother, Claudio.

Fearful lest Claudio be tempted by Angelo’s proposition, Isabella

tries to evade his questions, but after several attempts, he manages to

pry that information out of her. At first he is properly horrified but

then he gets to thinking: Maybe “it” is no sin after all, “Or of the

deadly seven it is the least.” (III.1.110) Why would a learned man like

Angelo risk damnation for “the momentary trick?” Maybe he knows

something I don’t. And then the thought of death overwhelms him.

Nothing the Duke has just been saying about the miseries of life can

compare with the horrors of death as Claudio imagines them, once he

sees a possible reprieve. To Isabella’s tart reminder of the shame of a

life lived on Angelo’s terms, he replies with a depth of horror that

makes us realize how conventional the Duke’s contemptus mundi

rhetoric actually is and how much he left out:

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 imprison’d in the viewless winds

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent 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. III.1.131

Claudio’s horrific vision has to be felt; it can’t be paraphrased. And it

is particularly important that the audience should feel the power of his

poetry, because Isabella quite obviously does not: Claudio’s genuine

terror is met by a voice choked with hatred:

O you beast!

O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!

Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?

Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life

From thine own sister’s shame? What should I think?

Heaven shield my mother played my father fair!

For such a warped slip of wilderness

Ne’er issu’d from his blood. Take my defiance!

Die, perish! Might but my bending down

Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.

I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,

No word to save thee. III.1.146

Why does Isabella respond in this intemperate way to her brother’s

pleas for mercy? Why this sudden hatred? She could have said, “Sorry

brother, but what you ask is impossible; I love you dearly but you can’t

seriously expect me to put my immortal soul at risk by prostituting

myself to Angelo. A  life, which only lasts for a few years does not have

the same value or moral weight as a soul which lasts forever.” But she

doesn’t say this; in fact she doesn’t even come close. She doesn’t mention

her soul nor does she seem to fear damnation. What she fears is

defilement and shame. She is as horrified at the thought of being

clasped in the lascivious arms of Angelo, as her brother is of death and

the afterlife.

So here is the question or problem that never ceases to provoke

intense disagreement among readers and audiences of this play: Is

Isabella justified in her sudden hatred for her brother? Is her fear of

rape on the same moral plane as Claudio’s fear of death? Is her chastity

more valuable than her brother’s life?

Hers is one of those tragic, i.e. no-win dilemmas that reason alone

cannot settle. Whatever she does, she suffers irreparable loss, as she

sees it—or would if she were sufficiently reflective. But she doesn’t

have the right stuff to be a tragic hero—any more than Shylock, say.

She has been examined by the tragic muse, and found wanting. She is

not only unaware of the fact that she is making a choice between two

absolute goods, her chastity and her brother’s life, but she never

understands that that is what she has done. Her hatred is perfectly

authentic, as well as instantaneous, and costs her nothing. She is

unapologetic about it, feels no guilt, has no regrets.

Poor  Isabella. To be perfectly fair, if that’s possible, we must

acknowlege that she has done everything she could to avoid the temptations

and dilemmas that the normal contingencies of life will keep

putting in her way as long as she continues to live out in the secular

world. When we first meet her at the beginning of I.4., she is about to

leave the world and its dilemmas behind by becoming a votarist of the

order of St. Clare, an especially strict order, and that’s the point: as she

explains to the nun who admits her, she has deliberately sought out

this order because she wishes to submit herself to the strictest possible

“restraint.” Shakespeare does not explain her motives and he

doesn’t need to: the common sense of Vienna, whose “strict statutes

and most biting laws” against lechery and fornication are not being

enforced and have not been for some fourteen years, is just what she

is trying to get away from. That is no place for a pure and virtuous

maiden who, in all innocence, wants nothing more from life than a

chance to remain pure and virtuous on her own terms.

Even safely cloistered within her nunnery, the odds are against her

for the simple reason that she carries within her the sexual nature that

she is trying to escape. So it is a scene rich in dramatic irony when the

rake Lucio comes to tell her of her brother’s arrest and imminent deadly

peril, and to persuade her to intercede: just as she is making her

escape from the licentious world of Vienna, one of its most irreverant

and promiscuous citizens comes to bring her back. And the cause? Her

own brother and cousin have been doing what comes naturally to a

young couple, who are in love and virtually married. It is the innocent

naturalness of their sexuality that is underscored by Lucio when he

comes to tell Isabella of its consequences:

Your brother and his lover have embrac’d.

As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time

That from the seedness the bare fallow brings

To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb

Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry. I.4.44

And for this, Claudio—not Juliet—has been condemned to death by

Lord Angelo, a man, says Lucio, “whose blood/ Is very snow-broth;

one who never feels/ The wanton stings and motions of the sense... .”

(I.4.59) Isabella is, or would like to be, the same sort of person, so in

this respect she and Angelo are well matched. Both, morever, are more

passionate than they seem; both have emotional reserves that they

are quite unaware of. Angelo is humbled, eventually, by what he is

forced to learn about himself. What, if anything, Isabella and the Duke

learn is questionable.

Isabella, accompanied by the irrepressible and unconsciously bawdy

Lucio, goes to see Lord Angelo, who says in effect: Sorry lady, but I’m

just following the law. Which is true. He has no particular animus

against Claudio; nor does he feel any sympathy for him. Since Isabella

is divided between her love of her brother and her aborrence of his

vice, she is willing at first to accept the judgment of this “just but

severe law,” for it is a law she approves of. Now we see why Lucio’s

presence is necessary. Somebody has to remind her that what’s at

stake is not the abstraction, vice, but the life of her brother.

It is important to think for a moment (once more) about what

Isabella doesn’t say at this point. As someone who is basically sympathetic

to the aims of the law that Angelo is trying to enforce, she

could have said, “This case is the worst case you could have chosen.

If you execute this man, who is not a lecher or a bawd but an honorable

man who is virtually married to Juliet, you will undermine the rule

of law in Vienna, bringing it and you into disrespect.” But that is the

voice of practical reason and would have stopped the play—or for that

matter, just about any play—dead in its tracks. Instead, she asks,

“How would you be If He, which is the top of judgment, should/ But

judge you as you are?” (II.2.77) 

And here we begin to understand the point of the play’s title, 

Measure For Measure: Isabella is reminding Angelo of Jesus’ tremendous

 warning in Matthew 7:1-2, “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with what 

judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it 

shall be measured to you again.” But a judge who is not afraid of being judged 

will not be afraid to judge others. Those who are perfectly convinced of their 

own innocence will not shrink from throwing the first stone. Or they may throw

it anyway, without that conviction, on the theory that the law is the

law and must be applied; the moral or spiritual state of the judge is

irrelevant. And this indeed is the line that Angelo takes. In any case,

he feels perfectly secure in his own righteousness—as he has every

right to be.

So, while the rhetoric of Isabella’s appeal may resonate with the

audience, it is obvious that she is barking up the wrong tree. As it

happens, her appeal works, but not for the reason she thinks, or with

the result she hopes for. This scene is also richly and dramatically

ironic. (Once more, the presence of Lucio is appropriate: though neither

he nor Isabella is aware of the parallel, he is the pandar who is

bringing these two together.) At the very moment when she says, “Go

to your bosom,/ Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know/

That’s like my brother's fault” (II.2.138), lust is blossoming in

Angelo's heart. He doesn’t have to ask his heart what it knows. But

this knowledge does not fill his heart with mercy as, in theory, it

should; quite the contrary.

Who’s paying for all these ironies? What’s the point, whose ox  is

being gored? Not Isabella’s, nor even Angelo’s. She is doing the best

she can, making the best of a hopeless case. Her moral position is

unassailable and the poetry of her appeal is not wasted—on us, at any

rate. But her poetry is greater and more profound than she realizes, for

it is not her own but Shakespeare’s. No ordinary person or poet could

have come up with these wonderful and famous lines:

but man, proud man,

Dress’d in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,

(His glassy essence), like an angry ape

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal. II.2.123

Nothing could be more absurd than the fantastic tricks we all play in

our proud ignorance of who we are and what we are doing. We think

we know what we are doing, and that’s part of the joke, the divine

comedy. Since only human beings are capable of laughter, only human

beings can appreciate the cosmic jokes we play on ourselves in our

state of complacent ignorance; angels can only weep. (Another strictly

human trait, but let that go.) If by some strange bit of luck (good

or bad, who knows?) they should happen to acquire the ‘spleens’ that

give us our sense of humor, they’d laugh themselves silly and cease to

be angels.

All the world’s a stage. God and his angels are the audience. The

angle of Isabella’s lens is so wide it includes everybody, everywhere,

on stage and off, in the theater and out. We rarely know who we are

or what we are doing. And this is an idea that informs many of

Shakespeare's plays, especially Hamlet.

The Duke is particularly absurd as he tries to play God and straighten

out the mess he has made. To be sure, it is always within his power to

drop his disguise and call off his experiment, but that would make him

look stupid. So the comedy gets better and better. Though perhaps

nothing could be better than the scene (II.1) early on, in which Angelo

and his fellow magistrate, Escalus, try to find out what happened to

Elbow’s wife in Pompey’s “hothouse”—a bathhouse, ostensibly.

Pompey had been a tapster and part-time bawd in one of the brothels

that have just been “pulled down” as part of Angelo’s efforts to clean

up the city, and Elbow is a constable. No sooner had Pompey's first

place of employment been destroyed than he and his boss, Mistress

Overdone, opened this bathhouse, into which establishment Elbow’s

pregnant wife had wandered in search of stewed prunes (a snack that

pregnant women were commonly supposed to have a special appetite

for). Elbow is enraged because she “might have been accused in fornication,

adultery, and all uncleanliness there.” It isn’t clear whether

he means accused or abused, or by whom, and every effort of officialdom

to get at the facts is frustrated: by Elbow’s ignorance, Pompey’s

cunning, or the simplicity of the only witness, Froth. Here is a choice

bit of exasperating testimony:

Pompey. Sir, she came in great with child; and longing,

(saving your honor’s reverence), for stew’d pruins.

Sir, we had but two in the house, which at that very

distant time stood, as it were, in a fruit-dish, a dish

of some threepence—your honors have seen such

dishes; they are not china dishes, but very good dishes.

Escalus. Go to, go to; no matter for the dish, sir.

Pompey. No, indeed, sir, not of a pin; you are therein

in the right. But to the point. II.1.97

And so it goes, on and on, the point is never reached and the magistrates

give up.

People like Pompey and Elbow are the despair of administrators and

magistrates. The irrepressible Lucio and incorrigeably dissolute

Barnardine are pretty obviously crooked timber as well. Indeed, is

there anyone in this play who isn’t? Angelo is obviously unfit for his

new job as official straightener, and instinctively knows it; poor muddled

Isabella doesn’t know who she is; only the Jailer, the hangman

(Abhorson) and the magistrate (Escalus)—professionals all—know

their jobs and are comfortable in them.

The Duke of Dark Corners, as Lucio calls him, may not be a

straightener, exactly, but he is not a pragmatic utilitarian either.

Perhaps we should think of him as a confused muddler who doesn’t

know what he is doing and can’t make up his mind about the proper

role of the state in the promotion of the general welfare. The “strict

statutes and most biting statutes” that he refers to when he is explaining

his temporary abdication to Friar Thomas could only have been

enacted on his initiative, and it was his decision not to enforce them.

After fourteen years of laissez-faire, Vienna has become, predictably,

a seamy, steamy, sin city where anything goes. Though properly

appalled, the Duke doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t allow

the law to be mocked indefinitely, for it is his law and, as we soon

learn, he has a thin skin and can’t bear to be mocked or criticized; yet

he feels it would be unjust were he suddenly to enforce it. That, he

thinks, would be tyrannous and he wants to be thought well of. Being

a not very courageous politician he, like politicians the world over,

takes the easy way out: let someone else do it.

When things go wrong, he can’t take the easy way out and doff his

disguise, for he is afraid of mockery. It would be beneath his dignity

to admit he had made a serious error of judgment, and dignity is

power. So he is forced to play God, behind the scenes as it were—if

God is a bricoleur who makes use of whatever materials lie ready at

hand. And sure enough, the dusty old bed trick is right there waiting

to be used. All he has to do is find someone to take Isabella’s place in

Angelo’s bed. Not a problem: Angelo had been engaged to marry a

woman named Mariana some years previously but had backed out at

the last minute when her dowery had been lost at sea with her brother

To make matters worse, he had tried to cover up his real, mercenary

motive by slandering her character, “pretending in her discoveries of

dishonor.” (III.1.231) Yet she loves him anyway. The Duke knows all

this and thinks that Mariana might be willing to help Isabella trick

Angelo. So the Duke proposes this scheme to Isabella, who likes the

plan, and it is duly and successfully carried out, underlining the fact

that her reasons for objecting in the first place were selfish: what

would be shameful in her is virtuous in another.

What the Duke doesn’t know—some god!—is that Angelo does not

intend to honor his side of the bargain; though the Duke might have

guessed: it would be stupid for Angelo to let a man live who is honor

bound to be revenged on his sister’s deflowerer. Fortunately, the Duke

is hanging about in the prison where Claudio is locked up. He is waiting,

confidently, for news of Claudio’s reprieve. When the opposite

order from Angelo arrives, early in the morning, he has to think fast.

Who, he asks, is this Barnardine fellow, who is slated for execution

later in the day? (The Duke ought to know, for Barnardine has been

sitting on death row for the last nine years, but perhaps, again, he

doesn’t want to blow his cover.) A worthless fellow, who doesn’t care

if he lives or dies, answers the Provost, “A man that apprehends death

no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless and fearless

of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality and

desperately mortal.” (IV.2.148) Splendid, thinks the Duke, we’ll execute

him instead of Claudio and, as ordered, send his head to Angelo

who won’t know the difference, death being “a great disguiser.”

Besides, we can “shave the head and tie the beard; and say it was the

desire of the penitent... you know the course is common.” When the

Provost objects, saying he dare not disobey Angelo, the Duke is forced

to come close to revealing his identity, by showing the Provost letters

signed and sealed with the Duke’s signet, letters that no mere friar

would be likely to possess.

But the Duke is not off the hook yet. Ornery, cross-grained

Barnardine refuses to allow himself to be executed:

Duke. Sir, induc’d by my charity, and hearing how hastily you

are to depart, I am come to advise you, comfort you, and pray

with you.

Bar. Friar, not I; I have been drinking hard all night, and will

have more time to prepare me, or they shall beat out my brains

with billets. I shall not consent to die today, that’s certain.

Duke. Oh sir, you must; and therefore I beseech you

Look forward on the journey you shall go.

Bar. I swear I will not die to-day for any man’s persuasion.

Duke. But hear you—

Bar. Not a word. If you have anything to say to me,

come to my ward; for thence will not I to-day. Exit. IV.3.63

The Duke’s luck holds. A notorious pirate and dead ringer for Claudio,

Ragozine, has just died of natural causes and the Provost takes his

head to Angelo. And so the Duke’s various frauds, large and small—

all in a good cause—successfully proceed.

The Duke still has to manage his re-entry into civil society, however,

and he has to do that with dignity while at the same time restoring

Vienna to the rule of law. That means that Angelo has to be indicted

and induced to confess his sins. And since this is a play, all of these

things have to happen in the final climactic scene. Once more there is

a potential glitch which the Duke has not foreseen. It turns on the fact

that the friar, aka Duke, is the only person who is in a position to corroborate

the accusations of Isabella and Mariana. (Claudio can’t because he is supposed

 to be dead and if you don’t have a dead man you don’t have a crime.) 

Since the Duke can’t be in two places at the same time, he can’t be both judge 

and witness. Without a witness, Angelo will scoff at the claims of Isabella and 

Mariana, charge them with libel and hustle them off to prison. As for this friar who, 

they say, can support their claims, no one knows who he is or where he is to be

found. Should the Duke leave the stage and return as the friar, which

is what happens, no one will believe him. Why should they? There’s a

pretty good chance he will be arrested and roughed up. Of course it is

always open to him to declare his real identity, but when? And how is

he to do it in a dignified and ceremonious way while he is being beaten

up by his own constables?

It is clear that the Duke has not thought about this problem, which

is also Shakespeare’s, who solves it by a particularly brilliant bit of

theatrical stagecraft that keeps everyone in character and requires no

ad hoc tinkering or assumptions. It is solved by that indispensible go-between,

man-about-town and busybody, Lucio, who has been pestering

the Friar-Duke and getting under his skin every chance he

gets—not intentionally, but merely by being his naturally feckless,

irresponsible, chattering self. And what has Lucio been chattering about? 

The Duke, of course, whom Lucio thinks is far, far away and whose absence 

he sincerely regrets.

Here we must return to an amusing conversation (III.2.114ff.)

between the (disguised) Duke and Lucio, who is saying that the Duke

would never have allowed Angelo to execute Claudio:

Why what a ruthless thing is this in him [Angelo], for the

rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man! Would

the Duke that is absent have done this? Ere he would have

hang’d a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would

have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling for

the sport; he knew the service, and that instructed him to


Duke. I never heard the absent Duke much detected for

women, he was not inclin’d that way.

Lucio. O, sir, you are deceiv’d.

Duke. ’Tis not possible.

Lucio. Who? not the Duke? Yes, your beggar of fifty; and his

use was to put a ducat in her clack-dish. The Duke had crotchets

in him. He would be drunk too, that let me inform you.

Duke. You do him wrong, surely.

Lucio. Sir, I was an inward of his. A shy fellow was the Duke,

and I believe I know the cause of his withdrawing.

Duke. What, I prithee, might be the cause?

Lucio. No, pardon; ’tis a secret must be lock’d within the teeth

and the lips. But this I can let you understand, the greater file

of the subject held the Duke to be wise.

Duke. Wise? Why, no question but he was.

Lucio. A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow.

Duke. Either this is envy in you, folly, or mistaking. The very

stream of his life, and the business he hath helm’d, must,

upon a warranted need, give him a better proclamation. Let

him be but testimonied in his own bringings-forth, and he

shall appear to the envious a scholar, a statesman, and a soldier.

Therefore you speak unskillfully; or, if your knowledge be

more, it is much dark’ned in your malice. III.2.142

A lesson for rulers and magistrates: don’t go about incognito if you

have a thin skin and the only thing you want to hear is what your egotistical

inner voice has been telling you. You are bound to run into

someone like Lucio who will tell you all sorts of things about yourself,

some of them true, that you’d rather not hear. What’s interesting about

Lucio’s portrait of the Duke is that it makes him look more complicated

and interesting than he is. While the “crotchets” that Lucio credits

him with may not be true (but who knows?) and are certainly unflattering

to conventional minds, they also make him look good—in an

unconventional way, to be sure. So, when Lucio says, “Ere he would

have hanged a man for the getting a hundred bastards, he would have

paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling for the sport; he

knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy,” he is actually

paying the Duke a compliment which the Duke is too self-important to

appreciate. Responding testily to Lucio’s observations, the Friar-Duke

threatens to tell the (real) Duke how he has been slandered.

When they meet again in the final scene, Lucio is only too willing

to bustle in and assist the authorities when they decide to arrest this

friar who is putting on such inappropriate and offensive airs. In the

ensuing scuffle, Lucio accidentally pulls off the friar’s hood, and the

Duke is revealed in all his glory. The trick could not and certainly

would not have come off any better if the Duke had planned it. “Thou

art the first knave that e’er mad’st a Duke,” he says, ungratefully.

Having accomplished his reentry into civil society with the help of

Lucio, the Duke is in his element and can play God to his heart’s content.

Angelo, totally humiliated, actually compares him to God: “I perceive

your Grace, like pow’r divine,/ Hath looked upon my passes.”

Having confessed his guilt and begged for death, Angelo is first

married to Mariana, in order to protect her honor, says the Duke, and

is then condemned to death for the death of Claudio; though ‘condemned’

may not be the right word, for this is a quietus that Angelo,

in the agony of his newly created conscience, ardently and devoutly

desires. When Mariana protests at being merely mocked with a husband,

the Duke replies coldly, he mocked you, didn’t he? Now you can

buy yourself a better one with the proceeds of Angelo’s estate, with

which I am about to “instate and widow you.” 

Now Isabella uses her intellectual and rhetorical power to support Mariana’s plea:

Most bounteous sir:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemned,

As if my brother liv’d. I partly think

A due sincerity governed his deeds,

Till he did look on me. Since it is so,

Let him not die. My brother had but justice,

In that he did the thing for which he died;

For Angelo,

His act did not o’ertake his bad intent,

And must be buried but as an intent

That perish’d by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,

Intents but merely thoughts. V.1.454

This is a serious argument, and the Duke has deliberately (and, for the

first time, intelligently) forced her to make it: Claudio was justly condemned

but Angelo’s attempted rape never happened. Since our

thoughts and intentions are not subject to the law—human law that

is—Angelo should be dealt with mercifully. And still the Duke remains

unmoved. Something is needed to break the impasse and, on the

Duke’s cue, the Provost brings in Barnardine, Juliet and a “muffled”

Claudio. Barnardine is condemned for his spiritual faults but pardoned

for his earthly ones. “But what muffled fellow’s that?” asks the Duke,

at which Claudio is unmuffled, to the astonishment and joy of all—or

all but Isabella, who has nothing to say. “It is somewhat strange,”

comments Samuel Johnson in his note on this scene, “that Isabel (sic)

is not made to express either gratitude, wonder or joy at the sight of

her brother.”

First the Duke proposes to Isabella, then he pardons Angelo, and then

he turns his attention to the man who, more than any other, he has

been itching to get his hands on: Lucio.

And yet here’s one in place I cannot pardon.

You, sirrah, that knew me for a fool, a coward,

One all of luxury, an ass, a madman,

Wherein have I so deserv’d of you,

That you extol me thus? V.1.503

A truly magnanimous man would have found Lucio’s chatter as amusing

and as interesting as we do. He’d have understood him as the fascinating

piece of work that he is, just the sort of unique, quirky, unpredictable

fellow that moralists and political theorists despair of—and

(some) rulers go incognito among the people to learn about. It does not

occur to the Duke that he has only himself to blame when he discovers

that he has been the subject of various forms of gossip among

some of his citizens. Though he forgives Angelo for a couple of crimes

that he fully intended to commit (and thought he had), he punishes

Lucio for ‘slanders’ that are actually intended, in an odd sort of way,

to be complimentary. While we may consider it fair and just that Lucio

should be forced to marry the whore he got with child, in

Shakespeare’s day that would have been regarded as a serious punishment.

And that is certainly how the Duke and Lucio see it.

There remains the problem of Isabella. She did not become a problem

until we in the West began to think seriously about the rights of

women. Why should the Duke—or anyone—take it for granted that

she might want to marry him? The bland assurance with which he

appropriates her at the end of the play is bound to infuriate many a

modern audience, and much has been made of the fact that she does

not reply to the Duke’s proposal. One makes of it what one will, of

course, and the will at the present time is to interpret that silence as

either a stubborn refusal or a sullen acquiescence, which the Duke,

characteristically, doesn’t perceive.

I doubt that Shakespeare had either of these possibilities in mind;

each is inconsistent with the Isabella the play has shown us: a young

woman who knows as little about herself as the Duke or Angelo know

about themselves. She enters a nunnery not because she has a vocation

for the spiritual life but because she wants her sexual nature to be

placed under the strictest possible restraint. Like her brother, Isabella

regards sexual pleasure and desire as poisons which “our natures do

pursue, like rats that ravin down their proper bane, a thirsty evil, and

when we drink, we die.” (I.2.130) This is not a rationally defensible

point of view and leads to the equally irrational hatred with which she

responds to Claudio’s desperate pleas in III.1. Isabella, too, is made

from the crooked timber of humanity. Since she has no vocation for

sainthood, why should she go back to the Sisterhood of St. Clare’s

instead of marrying the Duke? Most people, then and now, would

regard such a choice as a no-brainer. If she has learned nothing about

herself from her experience, though, such a marriage might indeed be

a fate worse than death. So, while the question of what if anything she

has learned is important, I don’t think it can be answered with much

assurance. If her violent rejection both of her brother and of her own

sexuality in III.1 troubles her conscience or her mind, no mention is

made of it. It would seem, then, that she and the Duke are well

matched: for all we know, which is what the play allows us to know,

he too has learned nothing. But maybe it’s expecting too much of a

comedy, even so serious comedy as this, to want such things to be

spelled out. Maybe Shakespeare thought it wasn’t necessary, or that

the play had gone on long enough and no one would notice if a few i’s

remained undotted. Johnson observed, “that in many of his plays the

latter part is evidently neglected. When he found himself near the end

of his work, and in view of his reward, he shortened the labor, to

snatch the profit.”

As has often been noted by Shakespeare scholars, Measure For

Measure is an extended commentary on those lines from Matthew 7

that we have quoted earlier: “Judge not that ye be not judged. For with

what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure

ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Those, by general scholarly

consent, are the lines that the Duke is thinking of as he passes

judgment on Angelo in the last scene:

The very mercy of the law cries out

Most audible, even from his proper tongue,

“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”

Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;

Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure. V.1.411

These lines, however, allude not to the New Testament but to the Old:

they derive from the ancient judicial principle of an eye for an eye,

tooth for tooth, which is repeatedly set forth in the Old Testament

(Exodus 21.24, Leviticus 24.20 and Deuteronomy 19.21). That idea of

justice is not, as is generally assumed, revengeful and retributive but

the opposite: it says, let the punishment fit the crime. Don’t kill a man

for knocking out an eye or a tooth; make him pay an eye or a tooth or,

as usually happens, some cash equivalent. This is a  workable theory, 

as Jesus’ idea about virtuous judges is not. If the only people who

are fit to judge others are those who are pure in heart and deed, no

judges or prosecutors will qualify and the courts will have to be shut


When Isabella tries to use Jesus’ idea on Angelo, it backfires: he

looks into his heart as instructed and finds Isabella there. Instead of

being inspired by merciful thoughts toward Claudio, he is filled with

lust for her. This bit of dramatic irony is central to the subject of the

play: not the moral perfectionism of Jesus but Old Testament practicality.

People are not to be punished for their thoughts or even their

intentions, but their actions. Whether she knows it or not, Isabella has

come a long way when she makes that distinction in her last speech to

the Duke (and her last of the play.) It is an idea that he has already

decided to follow. Since Angelo did not actually do the things he

intended to do, he should be forgiven. And so the play ends equitably,

as comedies should, with forgiveness for all—all but Lucio.

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