Shakespeare’s Portrayal of the Duke

What dramatic interest has Shakespeare created through his portrayal of the Duke in Act 3?In order to answer this question, it is necessary to study the character of the Duke and how he is developed in Act 3. The Duke acts principally as an observer, watching Isabella and Claudio argue before sweeping in to resolve the situation. He is also, however, involved with the characters despite his assumption of religious real authority echoing his real status. The Duke is clearly wounded by Lucio’s painful analysis of his motives and dubious virtues in scene two, and also by Angelo’s treacherous behaviour, despite not being unexpected.Act 3 is punctuated with reminders of Angelo and his authority in Vienna. Both Pompey and Mistress Overdone are carried off at his behest, emphasising his presence although he does not physically appear onstage in the whole act. The concoction of a plan to expose his lechery is also placed centre stage, both by the Duke and the playwright, making this absentee character seem all the more important. This is contrasted strongly with the Duke’s presence for the entirety of the act. The Duke acts as an observer for much of the time, and seems apart from the other characters, not least because he is also in disguise as a friar. There is a strange comparison between the omnipresent but not actually present Angelo with his treacherously short-lived power, and the Duke who, although entirely in control of the other characters, appears hidden and only semi-present. Both characters could be said to be involved in a tempestuous sea of power and deception, with the audience denied a lifeboat of unshakeable morality. The Duke certainly tries to make it seem that he is still in control, referring to Angelo as ‘my deputy’ in the last scene. He also cries out’Twice treble shame on Angelo, to weed my vice, and let his grow!’This line shows the Duke’s shock by its punctuation, and perhaps astonishment at the depths to which the angel has sunk. Angelo, however, is not heard from in the scene. Perhaps it is this which dooms him: the Duke is ultimately in control because only his character is allowed to interact with the audience in Act 3 in the same way that Angelo was in Act 2. The balance of power has been shifted back in favour of the Duke by Angelo’s actions. This strange kind of semi-real power struggle helps to hold the audience’s attention in this less dramatic section of the play.Despite his power, the Duke’s judgements are, however, highly questionable. He seems to question Angelo’s ability to command even by his decision to remain in Vienna to observe him. Does the Duke set Angelo up in the expectation of his fall from grace? Perhaps the character can be excused this, as there could have been no play without Angelo’s sudden elevation to power. However, the Duke seems deliberately cruel to Claudio, manipulating him and crushing his hope in scene one. Claudio’s crimes, as Pompey was at pains to point out, is singularly undeserving of his fate. It could be argued that the Duke is merely trying to make Claudio accept his wrongdoing, and so find salvation. This alternative interpretation does, however, rather hinge on the assumption that the Duke is acting purely out of good principles, and that itself has not been determined. Perhaps Claudio’s anticipation of his death is its own punishment. The audience is here presented with a supposed good man, the Duke, acting badly. This questions the Duke’s own authority; coupled with Lucio’s own alternative interpretation of the character as a drunken fool who has himself dabbled in sin, and the Duke’s name seems well and truly sullied. However, Claudio is not present on stage for most of the time, and when he is he seems pitiable but powerfully wronged by Angelo, not the Duke. The Duke himself is much more at the focus of an audience’s attention, and it is possible that Shakespeare meant his treatment of Claudio not to be an issue.It is interesting that the Duke lies to Escalus, declaring himself to be sent by no less than the Pope himself. Even in his deceptions, the Duke has a high opinion of himself. Perhaps he is also arrogant in his shock and horror to hear Lucio’s opinion of himself. The audience is left with a quandary; do they believe Lucio’s gossip, despite having just seen him betray his once-friend, Pompey, with mockery? Or perhaps they believe in the Duke’s untarnished honour and justice. Is the Duke:’A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow,’as Lucio suggests, or is he instead’He who the sword of heaven will bear … holy as severe’as he seems to view himself? It is hard to reach a compromise between the two extremes, and it is important to realise that the Duke’s plan is one of manipulation and immorality. When attacked verbally, although third party, by Lucio, he responds with anger and threatens the return of the Duke. He admits his own ‘vice’, but is quick to highlight Angelo’s misdeeds.Perhaps more importantly, the Duke spends the whole of Act 3 in disguise. He accuses Angelo ironically at the end of scene ii, saying’O, what may man within him hide, though angel on the outward hide!’He could just as easily be describing himself here for he too is a man who is shrouded in a façade of religious impunity in his donning of a friar’s habit. He too has a veneer of power and extreme religious and legal strictness, and yet has shown himself inept at combating it.In light of the Duke’s sanctimonious speeches to the petrified Claudio and his frequent calls for harsh punishments on the sinful, the Duke to me appears as a self-important man full of high morals. In reality, he is out of touch with his people and unable to comprehend poor Claudio’s fear and his people’s shock at the sudden cleansing of Vienna. The audience is unsure of him as he shifts between Duke and friar, and invents deeply immoral schemes to catch red handed a man he set up in power. He descends to trickery and manipulation, and yet delivers sermons on the need for ‘correction and instruction’. It is through his ambiguousness that the audience interest is maintained. Also the Duke is responsible for driving the plot forward in this scene, producing the ‘bed trick’ from the dusty recesses of his mind. Thus he is a very dynamic and dramatically interesting character.

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