Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Ideal of Justice

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

One possible analysis of Shakespeare’s Measure of Measure follows a natural progression of criminal justice over the course of the play. Angelo’s hardline punishments in Act One reflect the eye for an eye, measure for measure justice of the Old Testament. By Act Two, his personal corruption and constant criticism from secondary characters undermines the legitimacy of his justice. An alternative system aligned with New Testament mercy is represented by Isabella, and exemplified by her begging to save Angelo’s life in the final act. The Duke represents a shift to more moderate power as he doles out punishments in the form of forced marriages rather than executions. This reading of the play fulfills the audience’s desire for progress and reconciliation. Unfortunately, this reading disregards several philosophical and plot problems left unresolved in the rushed reestablishment of the Duke’s rule. Measure for Measure does not, in the end, promote any one ideal justice system. The theme of ideal justice is suppressed by a constant, less explicit motivator: the protection of one’s reputation. While both Angelo and Isabella act to protect their reputations, the Duke’s actions best show how this motivator underlies disparate criminal justice throughout the play.

?The issue of reputation appears at the onset of the play when the Duke decides to fix his public reputation by temporarily placing Angelo in power. In the Duke’s own words:

I have on Angelo imposed the office,
Who may, in the ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander. (1.4.40-43)

“Slander,” along with the later terms “honor” and “shame,” is repeated often in the play and plays a central role in the theme of reputation. In this moment, the Duke recognizes the power of his “name”, or position as enforcer of the law, even though he has not himself been exercising the power of the title “Duke” to enforce laws. The Duke fears that his personal reputation, or “nature”, would be slandered if he suddenly became more stringent towards criminals. The Duke takes on a more comedic disposition under the guise as a friar, but because the situation itself is slightly ludicrous and because the office of lawgiver is no longer “imposed” upon him. He is free to act out of the public eye. Like Justice Overdo in Bartholomew Faire, the Duke might be expected to go undercover in order to assess the criminality of his realm. Instead, the Duke says that he wishes to see if Angelo’s virtuous, austere nature is actually genuine: “Hence we shall see,/ If power change purpose, what our seemers be,” (1.5.54). A manipulative leader himself, the Duke wishes to see if Angelo can maintain his good reputation – what he seems to be – under the influence of newfound power. From the moment the Duke decides to give Angelo power until the end of the play, he obsesses over his own image in the public eye and the reputations of those around him. His closing lines at the end of Act Five hint that Angelo will not be able to maintain the austere personality needed to carry out and live out the strict code of laws he proceeds to enforce.

Following the Duke’s foreshadowing, Angelo’s motivations as a lawgiver come into question even before he propositions Isabella for sex in exchange for Claudio’s life. After being sentenced to death for impregnating his fiance, Claudio gives the most explicit criticism of Angelo in the form of a metaphor:

Or whether that the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur; (1.3.43-46)

Claudio accuses Angelo of punishing him without just cause, as an immediate action taken whether the metaphoric horse is out of control or not. Claudio’s execution acts as an example to the “body public” so that Angelo may establish a reputation as a law enforcer even before laws have been broken. Claudio continues to say that Angelo actions are “surely for a name” (1.3.55). While it may be important for Angelo to avoid the lax justice of the Duke’s reign, he appears cruel in using Claudio as a tool to change the law enforcer’s reputation. In fairness, Angelo does consistently dole out hardline punishments, which proves motivation beyond establishing a reputation with one radical arrest. However, he appears to show too much zeal for punishment when discussing the clowns Elbow, Pompey, and Froth. Though yet unclear whether these men committed crimes, Angelo leaves them with Escalus, “Hoping you’ll find good cause to whip them all,” (2.1.192). This secondary motivation, whether it be personal malice or a true belief that random punishment will do the public good, is irrelevant so long as it does not conflict with Angelo’s desired reputation. Angelo, and the hardline reputation he has quickly established for the position he inhabits, only comes under threat when he hypocritically breaks his own laws.

When Isabella threatens to expose Angelo’s hypocrisy in Act Two, their conversation shows both the import of reputation and the almost tangible power that reputation holds. Isabella demands of Angelo to “Sign me the pardon for my brother/ Or, with an outstretched throat, I’ll tell the world/ Aloud what man thou art!” (2.4.154-156) Isabella seeks to use the power of her voice, in contrast to the physical power Angelo yields to enforce laws, to show “the world” that Angelo is a hypocrite. Unfortunately, Angelo recognizes that his good reputation is actually more powerful than her own:

My unsoiled name, th’austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’th’state
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report,
And smell of calumny. (2.4.157-161)

Angelo relies on his good personal reputation (“unsoiled name”) and his reputation as an agent of the state (“my place i’th’state”) to not only counteract Isabella’s accusation, but to ruin her own good reputation. The reputations take on almost tangible qualities with their import: Angelo’s with “overweigh” hers, which will then be “stifle[d]”. Isabella will then take on a metaphorical mark, or “smell of calumny”. In an ironic twist, it is the good reputation of a dishonorable man that can ruin the good reputation of an honorable woman. Their reputations take on a significance separate from the virtuosity of the characters themselves. One problem presented in the play, separate from issues of correct justice and mercy, is the realignment of reputation with true character.

In another instance in which reputation holds greater influence than true character, Angelo emphasizes how the state punished known criminals, rather than all criminals. Angelo explains to Escalus that there may be criminals on a jury in trial, but “What’s made open to justice,/ That justices seizes,” (2.1.12-22). While only punishing some criminals is actually unjust, Angelo repeats the word and uses a personified “justice” as a stand-in for himself. He is the one that “seizes” criminals when criminals are “made open” to his knowledge. Angelo continues the line, “What knows the laws/ That thieves do pass on thieves?” (2.1.22-23). Here, Angelo adds another layer to his conception of who or what enforces criminal justice. The laws, as an inanimate set of rules, cannot recognize that hypocrisy is latent in the system. Angelo recognizes (and dismisses) the distancing of the true spirit of justice in law from criminal justice, while still trying to defend his system as one that “justice” itself enforces. In a criminal system that punishes those with criminal reputations rather than criminals themselves, Angelo must jump through rhetorical hoops to legitimate his actions. His Old Testament justice now seems not only harsh, but arbitrary in its enforcement. One might argue that Angelo’s focus on reputation is a fault of his villainous character, but even Isabella shows a similar concern.

Isabella, the pillar of mercy and virtuosity, reveals an exaggerated concern for her and her brother’s reputations through obsession with their “honor”. Isabella will do anything, even give up her brother’s life, before giving into Angelo. In her words, she would “My body up to shame,” (2.4.104). “Shame” may be a personal, self-inflicted feeling of disgrace, but it may also be a public disgrace. Isabella is concerned with both, though more so the latter, while she persuades Claudio to die. If he let her give in to Angelo, it “Would bark your [Claudio’s] honor from that trunk you bear,/ And leave you naked,” (3.1.70-72). Honor is compared to the bark of a tree, a feature notably visible from the exterior. This suggests the public side of “honor” as well as “shame”. Her debasement would leave him “naked”, a form of public shame. Isabella urges Claudio choose “perpetual honor” over a few more years of life (3.1.74-76). “Perpetual honor” carries the religious connotation of honor in the afterlife as well as being an honorable member of society. A mixed concern for both Claudio’s eternal soul and reputation as an honorable man pushes her to extremes. Claudio argues, candidly, that “Death is a fearful thing,” and Isabella responds, “And a shamed life hateful,” (3.1.117). She would rather choose death over shame for her brother, a form of extremism that mirrors Angelo’s concern for his reputation as a fierce enforcer of the law.

In the final scenes of the play, the audience expects a final system of justice to be instated with the Duke’s return. Instead of a neat tying up of loose ends, the long-winded scenes in which the Duke publicly reveals Angelo’s crime function as a climatic stage for the Duke’s reputation building. The first step in the Duke’s convoluted plan is to make his arrival a public event by mailing Angelo an official decree commanding such. It is the only scene in which unnamed citizens crowd the stage. The Duke draws out the unveiling by first denouncing Isabella’s accusation, though he is the one that earlier told her to accuse Angelo. He sends her to jail for slandering the name of those more highborn than herself: “Shall we thus permit/ A blasting and a scandalous breath to fall/ On his [Angelo] so near us?” (5.1.123-125). This quote shows a continued concern for protecting reputation, but emphasizes the importance of protecting those in power. The Duke’s jailing Isabella is both cruel and unnecessary to carry out justice against Angelo. By doing so, the Duke can disguise himself as a friar and accuse Angelo himself, giving him the final credit. For the same purpose, the Duke cruelly hides the fact that Claudio is alive until he wishes to sentence Angelo.

Angelo’s punishment helps restore both the Duke’s and Mariana’s reputations rather than following harsh Old Testament justice or merciful New Testament justice. At first, the Duke proposes that Angelo would give himself: “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death,” (5.1.405). When Mariana and Isabella beg for Angelo to be spared, the Duke ignores them and directs the conversation towards Claudio’s death. Finally revealing that Claudio is alive, the Duke notes “Lord Angelo perceives he’s safe;/ Methinks I see a quick’ning in his eye,” (5.1.490-491). In a very odd moment, it is the fact that the Duke saved Claudio which spares Angelo from execution, rather than the many pleas that the women gave. Abruptly, the Duke says that Angelo pardoned or free of evil: “Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well,” (5.1.492) In this way, the moderate sentence that the Duke finally arrives at can only be attributed to him: he denounces Angelo, he saves Claudio, and he gives Angelo a just sentence in the end. Establishing all credit towards the Duke’s reputation elongates the final scenes far beyond what the plot requires. As a final note, the Duke also saves Mariana’s ruined reputation, he “safeguard[s] her honor” from “imputation” by marrying her to Angelo (5.1.415-416).

The final evidence for the true motivator underlying punishment in Measure for Measure is the Duke’s harsh punishment of Lucio. Lucio commits the one crime that the Duke, in his own words “cannot pardon” (5.1.495). He repeatedly slanders the Duke throughout the play. While insulting the Duke may seem more innocuous than Angelo’s crime, the Duke threatens Lucio with both whipping and hanging. Quickly changing his mind, the Duke chooses a punishment that could only seem worse to those obsessed with reputation. Lucio must marry the mother of his child, a prostitute. Once again, this shame is measured a heavier punishment than death. Lucio says, “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging!” (5.1.518) The Duke, as focused on reputation as Lucio, does not deny Lucio’s absurd statement and instead replies that “Slandering a prince deserves it,” (5.1.519). This punishment is fitting on several levels. Lucio is will be slandered as punishment for slandering the Duke. His punishment does not sway towards the extreme of either Angelo’s hardline punishment or Isabella’s complete mercy. Even so, it is the harshest punishment the Duke gives to any character, including the objectively more villainous Angelo.

In the end, Measure for Measure does not allow one system of justice to save Claudio, punish Angelo’s hypocrisy and crime, restore Isabella’s honor, and equalize the state of criminality under the Duke. Instead, Shakespeare puts aside the fraught issue of correct justice to expose a less virtuous motivator of state officials. In the final acts, the Duke makes decisions that will restore his personal reputation. This motivator is not isolated to the Duke, but is systemic. Angelo and Isabella concern themselves with reputations while using the language of justice, honor, and mercy. The final scenes of Measure for Measure reaffirm the inextricable complexities of correct justice while proving that the appearance of being a just ruler can be just as effective as actually being just.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Mesaure. Ed. Grace Ioppolo. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2010. Print.

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