Measure for Measure is the second of three unclassifiable plays that Shakespeare wrote in between writing his major tragedies, and in some ways, I find it the most puzzling.
It starts with the Duke of Vienna temporarily leaving his post for reasons unspecified, and appointing in his place a deputy, Angelo. Angelo’s doubts that he may not be worthy to take the Duke’s place are brushed aside. A couple of scenes later, we see the Duke take on the disguise of a friar, and explain his motives. But his motives seem very strange indeed. As ruler, he has been too lenient, he says, and as a consequence, the dukedom has become lawless. But he cannot now begin to enforce the laws he had so long neglected, as that would be tyrannical. So he is now resolved to wander through the city in disguise, to see how the city fares under Angelo.
There seems to me to be a great number of problems with this. Surely, one may think, that to appoint as deputy a man who would replace past leniency with a sudden and immediate strictness is no less tyrannical than enforcing the laws oneself. This issue is not addressed. And the Duke describes Angelo as “a man of stricture”; and yet, as we shall find out later, the Duke knows full well that Angelo had cruelly deserted his intended when she had lost her dowry: we, the audience, don’t know this yet, but surely the Duke must have known that Angelo’s morals are not above criticism. Is the Duke being dishonest in this scene with regard to his motive, I wonder? And if so, why?
It is certainly true that in the rest of the play, the Duke does not act in accordance to his stated motive. Far from allowing Angelo to enforce the law, the Duke does everything in his power to subvert Angelo. What can be the purpose of this? It is hard to say, because the Duke is among the most shadowy figures Shakespeare ever created: his stated motives seem hard to credit, his real motives inscrutable. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to see the Duke as a sort of divine figure: he holds complete power in his hands throughout, but, until he reveals himself at the end, he does not make that power apparent. And he seems to test the characters – Angelo and Isabella. And it is he who, at the end, passes judgement on them all, and shows mercy. Indeed, when the Duke does finally reveal himself, Angelo describes his actions “like power divine”. If the Duke is, indeed, a sort of symbolic representation of the divine, then it is perhaps not surprising that his characterisation is so shadowy: it is necessarily shadowy, for the same reason that the figure of God is so shadowy in Paradise Lost. Not even Shakespeare could characterise the Almighty! But in dramatic terms, placing at the centre of the play so shadowy a figure with such indistinct motives creates a sort of vacuum.
But for all that, this play contains – especially in its first half – some of the most vivid and memorable scenes in all Shakespeare. In scene after scene, speech after speech, there are passages, lines, moments, that leap out of the page. There is a marvellously rich, comic tapestry that actually put me in mind of Dickens: the lecher Lucio, the cheerful pimp Pompey Bum, the foolish Froth, the bawd Mistress Overdone (she has had nine husbands, and was Overdone by the last) … Dickens, given the moral code of his times, would have excluded the bawdiness, but in terms of sheer exuberance and delight in comic eccentricity, this is not too far from Dickensian comedy. (Indeed, the court scene in Act 2 had me laughing out loud.)
And there’s the drama – and what drama! Isabella, who is about to become a nun and enter the strictest of orders, pleads to Angelo for her brother Claudio’s life (her brother has been condemned to death for sex outside marriage). Her passionate pleas for mercy are among my favourite passages in all of Shakespeare:
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Really! – Is there anything more magnificent than that? And Angelo falls: he cannot resist Isabella. And he is given one of Shakespeare’s finest soliloquies:
From thee, even from thy virtue!
What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Even till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder’d how.
This is all magnificent – but is it coherent? Isabella is unwilling at first to plead for her brother’s sake, and was merely lukewarm: what made her come out so suddenly with so powerful and so passionate an outpouring? For the moment, we may not worry as we are carried away by the sheer magnificence of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse, but questions such as this start nagging more as the play proceeds.
But for the moment, we are swept away – scene after scene of the most powerful dramatic intensity. Angelo, after fighting with himself, falls: Isabella’s brother will be saved if she comes to his bed. Meanwhile, the Duke, disguised as the Friar, delivers a wonderful speech to Claudio advising him to prepare for death. But only a few minutes later, Claudio delivers the most terrifying lines ever written expressing fear of death:
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.
This speech, which never fails to send shivers up my spine, comes in the middle of one of the most painful of all scenes in drama. Isabella tells her brother of Angelo’s perfidy, fully confident that her brother will happily accept death rather than expose his sister to such shame. But Claudio is too frightened of death to think so. And Isabella turns upon her brother hysterically, berating him in the vilest of terms. What does one make of a scene such as this?
Up to this point, we have been witnessing one of the high points of Shakespeare’s canon. But, from the middle of Act 3, something seems to go wrong. All the great scenes and the great speeches disappear: instead, the time is taken up with the mere mechanics of the plot. When the plot is not the primary focus of interest, it matters little if it’s silly; but when it is the primary focus – as it is in the second half of this play – then flaws in the plot do become important. The final tableau in Act 5 is, admittedly, splendidly theatrical, but for all that, the brilliance of the first half of the play finds no counterpart in the second.
And the final scene in which the Duke reveals himself (as we knew all along he would) is curiously joyless. Brother and sister are reunited: but where, in Twelfth Night, the siblings greet the reunion with a sense of wonder and of awe, here they don’t exchange a single word. Angelo, pleads only for death: in that, he is consistent – the guilty must be punished, even if the guilty is himself. The Duke shows mercy, but there is no expression of relief from Angelo: he probably would have preferred to have died. It is Isabella who pleads on Angelo’s behalf, and while this may seem out of character, it is consistent on another level: it was she who had spoken earlier on behalf of mercy. The Duke offers to marry Isabella at the end: once again, there is no real expression of joy – on either side.
While I am powerfully affected by this play – especially the first half – I find it puzzling. Even thematically, I find it puzzling. There is clearly a dichotomy between justice and mercy, and while the Duke feels (or says he feels) that he has erred too much towards mercy and away from justice, everything he does thereafter tends towards mercy. What about the claims of justice? When Angelo is asked to show pity, he says he shows it most when he shows justice, for then he pities those whom he does not know: for if the course of justice were to be denied for the sake of pity, then justice would soon become a meaningless concept (this is what, according to the Duke himself, has already happened in his dukedom) – and the result is that innocent people will suffer. This is a powerful argument: it is, indeed, unanswerable. And yet, Shakespeare seems to me to load the dice, as, in this case, justice is here represented by a law that is clearly unjust. It is not only in our modern times that we think it draconian (to say the least) to execute someone for sex outside marriage: Shakespeare’s audiences would have thought so too. Indeed, even in the play, everyone (except Angelo) feels that the law in this case is wrong : even the law lord, Escalus, and the Provost of the prison, feel it is not right to resurrect an old law that is so cruel. Surely the conflict between justice and mercy would have been less one-sided if Claudio had been guilty of something that is actually heinous – robbery, say, or murder. Why is the dice so very heavily loaded?
Overall, I don’t know that I understand exactly what Shakespeare was getting at in this play. I am transfixed by the first half, but the quality of the drama seems to decline significantly from the middle of Act 3 onwards. As they say in another context, it’s a play of two halves, Brian!