Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not
After each Shakespeare experience, I realize how much I have yet to learn The Bard we love so much. If the man wrote average works merely for the sake of his professional livelihood, one might count Measure For Measure among them even if only for its lack of notoriety. I did. Yet Shakespeare must have enjoyed envious blessing in his ability to transform mediocre intent into golden wonder.
I had no idea what to expect as I picked up Measure For Measure. I hadn’t the slightest familiarity with its characters, plot, themes, etc. I did, however, expect an “easy” play. On the contrary, Measure For Measure expounds on ethical conundrums in the oximoronic term “state justice” and the manipulated intent of civil and religious law when it serves to enforce morality.
Surely, Man created Law to protect freedom, not restrain it. Consider Angelo’s analogy of the scarecrow,
We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape till custom make it
Their perch, and not their terror (Act II, Scene I)
However, though I concede Angelo’s point, I have to ask: does the scarecrow exist only to scare crows or to protect the crop? Understandably, the two intentions intertwine yet if we untangle them, we must ask whether the crow, or the crop, represents the public. The Duke describes the public as a caged lion denied the use of its nature. He fears the public may no longer fear the cane once used to control it. The cage now angers them more than the pain of the cane frightens them. So they will endure that pain for the sake of exploding from the cage. Of course, after they explode from the cage, the cane may seem all the more necessary as the public indulges itself on every allowance once denied them. Claudio ponders,
From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty
As surfeit is the father of much fast,
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, -
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, -
A thirsty evil; and when we drink we die. (Act I, Scene III)
The public turns to a government to restrain their freedoms when they should rather enjoy the freedom to deny themselves as much as indulge themselves. They would see value, not in the lack of denial, but in the lack of a hand denying them. The problem is not denial itself, but who denies. That power ought to lie in each man. Freedom is power over oneself, not the lack of power at all which leads to irresponsible indulgence – not the ability to do anything, bu the power to choose for our own good. Perhaps Claudio speaks sarcastically, but I can’t argue with him.
Escalus, when pitying Claudio’s circumstances, laments, “Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; / Pardon is still the nurse of second woe:” (Act II, Scene I). Imagine if the Bishop of Digne had sent Jean Valjean back to prison for stealing his silver. Mercy and pardon always and steadfastly exist as Good and Right and fertilize seeds which grow green among crispy brown stalks. We simply cannot see the future or trust nature and mankind to unfold its story like Hugo’s – to raise the green stalks. Therefore, we believe that we need to snuff mercy and take power away from Fate and the evolution of nature to ensure justice.
Let he who has no sin cast the first stone – yet somehow we convince ourselves that government stands immune to this philosophy. We plead for justice from a civil authority like Angelo. As Angelo solicites Isabel, after her petition for mercy on behalf of her brother, I see a hypocrite but also a trickster. With leading logic, like a seven-figure lawyer, he manipulates her thinking to serve both his pious judgement and crude, base hypocrisy. He nearly resembles a satanic figure preying on a Godly sheep, “my false o’erweighs your true” (Act II, Scene IV). However, one can argue that Angelo labored logically not only to convince Isabel, but himself. If his prisoner’s sister, and a woman of the cloth no less, can defend his judgement than how can anyone else, or he, accuse him of injustice?
Their intellectual battle between civil law and religious reason exposes another concept. By pursuing infallible purity through reasoned or spiritual labor, Man unavoidably faces a crossroads of his reasoned and explained Right versus real, autonomous, unchangeable Right – a Right perhaps beyond analysis but surely constant, unaffected by his ability to grasp it, existing outside of his influence and content to carry on independently of his acceptance. Neither Angelo nor Isabel can flawlessly defend Claudio by means of reason, law or religion (at least within the realms of their understanding). Yet the audience knows Claudio suffers unjustly despite these characters’ inability to explain it. Angelo manages to portray Isabel’s sacrificial willingness as a sin. She follows and agrees, unable to show any conviction in sinning for the sake of saving her brother. Therefore, the audience remains unsatisfied and continue to wait for Shakespeare to present some wise perspective, to show a true Right that makes legally arguable sense among civil and religious law when neither rule has done so yet.
Speaking for myself, as a member of that audience, I sympathize with Claudio not only because he suffers for a behavioral slip which in this day bares minimal legal reciprocity, if any, but because Angelo, a statesman, holds sway over his very life as if he has a right to it. To Angelo, a human life signifies only its part in the machine of the public, of society. If that part breaks, or causes the machine to sputter, Angelo would simply dispose of it. Not only does this bother me, but the idea that Angelo, or any statesman with this power, can decide a man’s fate, or even a machine part’s fate, based on the machine’s performance when he determines the quality or intent of that machine’s function! To another, that machine might appear to do exactly what it ought to do but if Angelo disagrees, the part enters the hearth regardless of if the machine does, in fact, perform as it should according to a constant, autonomous assessment.
I found the Duke terribly interesting. He somehow stands apart from the other judges in this play. He leaves his seat and powers to Angelo, much like God may have done with Satan in the story of Job, and disguises himself as a friar. In contrast to Angelo and Isabel’s opposition, the Duke embraces both agents within himself. I also find it ironic that Venice’s highest judge would orchestrate justice away from his seat of power. I admit I had trouble believing in the Duke since he executes much of his more benign justice under a false guise and by tricking and employing falsehoods in the name of good. Yet he contrasts Angelo by employing “wrong” to accomplish good while Angelo and Escalus believe they do “good” by employing wrong. While Isabel and Angelo argue about the logic of sinning to save, the Duke encourages religiously indictable tricks in the pursuit of justice. Law does not motivate the Duke nor do any metaphysical or philosophical doctrines on justice. To use a cliche, the Duke follows the Golden Rule and feels that someone who has sinned should by no means cast any kind of stone. But if the head of government believes this, how can any man hold sway over another’s life? Lucio even distracts us into wondering, at least, if the Duke himself ought to cast any stones.
Finally, the Duke levies sentences against those who the audience might lead to the gallows themselves. And yet even here justice does not quit. We have yet more to glean about true justice and real Right. Isabel gets her chance to petition again for a life, though this time the life means quite the opposite to her from what Claudio’s means to her. But if she wants to remain true to her spiritual nature, she must pass the test or somehow, without ever anticipating it, find herself likened to her enemy and branded as a hypocrite. Claudio finds his justice, as does Angelo and Lucio. In the end, justice finds satisfaction in rectifying wrongs rather than punishing them.
All do not live happily ever after. But each wrong measure found its righteous and equal countermeasure. And time moves on for more wrongs and more rights and more mercy and more justice to find their places in our lives.
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