Thursday, March 13, 2014

William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (1604)

Kenneth Colley as the Duke* in the 1979 BBC film

[* In the First Folio, the Duke is named as Vincentio (not Vicentio!) at the end of the text, in the "The names of all the Actors". No-one calls him by that name in the text itself, (well, you wouldn't) and so far as I can see he is always just Duke in the speech prefixes and SDs.]

In short order and skyingly, Measure for Measure can now be enjoyed for what it is, a wonderful and serious romantic comedy that is more usefully seen in apposition to Twelfth Night than to the plays it’s more commonly linked with. It works by fleet-footed scenes (all, bar the final one, rather brief) and is not afraid to leave gaps and to make momentary, casual use of characters and situations in pursuit of its object. The play has in fact a formal brilliance that perhaps was a springboard for Shakespeare to leap beyond such perfection into the wild elongations of Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.

Measure for Measure was after Shakespeare’s death rather neglected for three centuries. The reasons, e.g. its bawdiness and the central place it gives to dubiously legal sex, no longer survive as “problems” and nor do the more recent concerns that have been expressed as moral doubts about the behaviour of (chiefly) the Duke and Isabella. Problematizing is not after all a once-for-all process; problems vanish sometimes, and to notice this is a necessary clarification that does not, as some people fear, make things less complex than they are; on the contrary, it just clears the deck for what now appear as the real complexities.


The scene is expository, but gives away only a portion of what the play is about. Shakespeare exposes the top of his hierarchy first (Duke, Escalus, Angelo), but he is not willing to tell us very much about them. It would be fatal to betray much about Angelo at this early stage; we should see three proper managers.

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do

is a thrilling image of character in action. The play will indeed show us these fiery effluences, but we don’t yet know where they’ll come from. As it happens, Escalus will play no vital role in forwarding the action, but we mustn’t know this yet, and likewise must be allowed to suppose that the Duke will be no more than an absentee figurehead. 


Lucio and the two gentlemen (who will hereafter be dropped, as we don’t yet know) begin by prolonging the illusion that the play will be about international politics, another potential route that the first scene might have led on to. These casual commentators have no conception, as yet, that the real matter of the play will be domestic affairs that concern them right here in Vienna.

The “sanctimonious pirate” will prove to exemplify a theme that is central to the play, namely the distinction between an ideal morality and how it can be worked out in a social setting that is already in place.

Or consider Pompey’s “you have worn your eyes almost out in the service”. Mistress Overdone’s trade may be unlawful, but the labour and dedication are real and cannot be wholly discounted. As with the pirate and as in most working lives there is a mess of conflicting codes; you do your best for the firm; what the firm does may be far from heaven’s best, but you do still do your best.  

With Claudio’s arrest, first outlined and then shown, the play finally develops a solid core of narrative interest. Even so, Claudio and Lucio find themselves second-guessing, as the accused always do. Claudio’s sister, not yet named, is shadowed at the end. She sounds – well, a little too young to be of great importance.

The scene gives a glimpse of Vienna. But the glimpse is not a characterization of Vienna, what it shows us is how earthily concerned the play is to be with Vienna’s daily life. To suggest as some have done that Vienna is really in a more desperate moral state than other places is taking what the Duke says a bit too uncritically; it leads to the false difficulty about the Duke’s record, and it understates the directness of the play’s application. Only Angelo echoes him. Vienna is in fact remarkably like any other town; certainly like Jacobean London. What the Duke himself calls excessive laxness is merely the freedoms ceded by a contemporary and realistic government that, however fierce in other ways, felt unable to impose full control on sexual mores. Shakespeare’s image of a city-state that tried to do so was, no doubt, Geneva – i.e. a bizarre exception that none but Puritans spoke up for.


Measure for Measure makes exceptional use of interlocutors that are not themselves dramatically significant – a sort of chiaroscuro drama where the focus of attention is displaced, e.g. towards absent potentialities rather than present event. It also makes exceptional use of single-scene characters. Some make a formidable effect (Barnardine), others are barely individualized, but the effect in either case is to suggest a spacious background, the opposite of a Racinian drama. The temptation to combine Friar Thomas with the Friar Peter of the play’s final phase should therefore be resisted.

It’s lunch-time. The two actors should either be eating or have just eaten – I think, soup and a roll. The Duke converses very freely with his inferiors. Here his conversation approves, but in a speculative way, the charms of severity; that’s one reason you know he has a full stomach. (The Duke’s “complete bosom” half-refers to this relaxed complacency, and he has an eye to the crusts when he reflects that Angelo will hardly admit “that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone”.)  


Francisca is another single-scene character. Lucio arrives at the convent with the dazzlingly rude “Hail virgin, if you be...” – it highlights the unexpected rapport that emerges between Isabella and Lucio. Despite her opening remarks she is quite at ease in her brother’s world (“Oh, let him marry her”). 

Isabella is the last of the major characters to appear. We learn that she is enthusiastic about her novitiate, but also fairly worldly. We understand that she has not yet found herself – our sympathy is (as e.g. Olivia) a critical sympathy, but not damagingly so. Shakespeare already prepares us for her eventual marriage.  

The scene ends as if Isabella is intending to visit Angelo on her own. Shakespeare wants us to anticipate this and to feel not very confident in her powers. In fact, he means Lucio to play an important role in the meeting (2.2), but to announce this now would lower the tension.


Time in a sense has stood still – the debate between Escalus and Angelo can be regarded as having continued without pause from the end of 1.1.

Angelo remains present for a substantial part of the joyous scene between Elbow, Pompey, etc. and even participates in its comedy. A negative judgment on Angelo is withheld – in fact his response to Escalus’s timidity is impressive, and Escalus’ subsequent aside (“Heaven forgive him,” etc), reasonable as it no doubt is, lacks force.  

Froth and the Justice are one-scene characters.  Each makes his impact with the utmost economy. While this scene is proceeding we are thinking of the big scene that surely awaits Isabella. A curious resonance (and an assonance) arises from linking her, during this delay, with the non-narrative of Mistress Elbow, who likewise comes to a strange house to make a request, in this case for stewed prunes, and who suffers unspecified insults.


There is a vice that most I do abhor...

Isabella has been criticized for the moral myopia of her singular abhorrence, but surely this is too credulous. She didn’t seem to manifest much abhorrence when she first heard of Claudio’s crime. Introducing herself to a man about whom the main thing she knows is that he detests sexual looseness, she is naturally keen to seek some common ground and at the same time to underline what it’s hoped will be her own strongest argument, namely her virginal purity. 

            Angelo. I will not do’t.

            Isabella.                    But can you if you would?

            Angelo. Look what I will not, that I cannot do.

These words could be dropped straight into the later scene between Isabella and Claudio – Angelo, too, is being asked to bend on a point of principle. (But Shakespeare, deviating from his source, doesn’t push Isabella into doing so.)

            If he had been as you, and you as he,
            You would have slipped like him.

Isabella does not intend this, but her words spark like a sexual proposal; murmured with a seductive smile, that’s exactly what they would be. Unwittingly she puts into Angelo’s mind, already attracted by her, the thought of slipping and getting away with it. The truth is, Lucio and Claudio are delicately eager for Isabella to use her feminine wiles (“Ay, touch him, there’s the vein”); she is necessarily put in a false position, which Angelo’s response will brutally expose. It shouldn’t be difficult to understand Isabella’s anger.

In Twelfth Night, a more humane sense of values than Malvolio’s is associated with “cakes and ale”. Measure for Measure probes a little further, associating divine mercy itself with sexual license. It’s Isabella who above all tries to resist this: “Lawful mercy is / nothing kin to foul redemption” (2.4.112-13), “Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd” (3.1.153). Shakespeare manages to drag his play away from the brink of this heterodoxy, but the underlying logic is there.

Angelo’s arguments for his “severe but just law” should be felt as formidable.

Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemned ere it be done.
Mine were the very cipher of a function, ....etc

(...Yet show some pity.)

I show it most of all when I show justice,
For then I pity those I do not know, ... etc.

Unsympathetic as we are to the specifics of Angelo’s judgment, these arguments force our acknowledgement (a sort of internal ripple of applause). Shakespeare places them here, before Angelo has done anything to blot his record, so that we register them fully. In the final scene, Isabella’s plea for mercy needs to have the weight to counteract them.


The focus moves to the Duke (already, we feel, a saving grace) in the prison of the condemned. But Claudio is kept from us as his life hangs in the balance; instead, we have this little prelude with Juliet (another one-scene character).

            I do repent me as it is an evil,
            And take the shame with joy.

Juliet’s words would not pacify a more searching confessor; they can plainly be taken any way you want, and the word “joy” seems if anything more appropriate to love and fruition than to chaste penitence. And even if the words are taken in a purely religious sense, they disquietingly echo Isabella’s (imagined) ecstasies of martyrdom.    


It’s the next day, but Angelo’s monologue continues directly from 2.2. As at the opening of 2.1, time seems to have stood still – a very simple instance of Shakespeare’s pervasive “double time”.


So play the foolish throngs with one that swoons,
Come all to help him, and so stop the air
By which he should revive; and even so
The general, subject to a well-wished king,
Quit their own part, and in obsequious fondness
Crowd to his presence, where their untaught love
Must needs appear offence.

Angelo is speaking in contempt about the behaviour of his own blood at the announcement of Isabella; it neglects its useful business in the limbs and comes surging up to his heart, where it can only get in the way.

The “well-wished king” is conceived to be a compliment to James I, but if it is, is Angelo the best man to pay it, and doesn’t he by doing so coerce the king into Angelo’s – and earlier, the Duke’s – disdainful attitude to the acclaim of the people? This may indeed be exactly what James thought to himself at the time of his coronation, but in a time full of suspicion of a foreign sovereign and with everyone on their  “best behaviour”, it hardly seems tactful to be emphasising it. We have, it seems, come a long way from Henry V.

That said, Angelo should not yet (if ever) be seen by us as an unprincipled villain. Claudio (1.2) speculates on whether Angelo’s principles are merely political, but these soliloquies assure us that the principles are real. Shakespeare weights the action of the play most delicately; to describe Angelo as caught in a honey-trap would be grossly partial but not entirely false.

The second interview between Angelo and Isabella does not repeat the first at all – Isabella has done with potent pleading, Angelo has done with embattled defense. Now he has his revenge on her, he becomes the aggressor. And badly as he acts, he should be masterful.

Plainly conceive, I love you.

But there is a good deal of frustration, that is, of hate.  

            More than our brother is our chastity.

Isabella is in a horrible position, and is deeply distressed. The switch to the plural is someone taking refuge in generality (she doesn’t dare to think “More than my brother is my chastity”). Her final words, “his soul’s rest”, should seem a desperately hopeful assertion; in sharp contrast to the patent unrest of her own soul.


(Duke, Claudio)

We have entered a phase of intimate dialogues between the major characters. We have just had Isabella/Angelo; it’s followed by Duke/Claudio, then Isabella/Claudio, then Duke/Isabella. Only in the last of these dialogues does the plot begin to move forward and the tension begins to subside. Then (3.2 in the traditional scene numbering) the focus begins to widen again and to permit a broader range of characters to divert us.

This scene between the Duke and Claudio forms a contrast to the high temperature of the preceding one. Though Claudio is under sentence of death, and the subject of their conversation is death, there is a sense of relaxation – you are in prison, there’s not much to do but talk.

The Duke’s motive for commending death is finally unclear. We know he is 
not a real friar, and we suspect he will not permit Claudio to die, so this is an unserious parody of ghostly advice with a strong element of play. Or philosophy, if you like.

thine own bowels

Neither the Duke nor Claudio yet have any children. If the Duke does indeed intend to make either death or life the sweeter to Claudio, he probably succeeds, but only in the modest way that philosophy succeeds with imperfect human beings. This is not the way to make Claudio into a martyr, as will soon be dramatically apparent. The Duke possesses the supreme executive, and combines it with the additional power of a disguise that no-one penetrates, but this doesn’t make him omnicompetent in e.g. spiritual or social matters, and Shakespeare (unlike some producers) amiably makes that clear by exposing the Duke to a series of petty humiliations. No-one likes a deus ex machina, but the Duke is the most acceptable one I know.

                                         for all thy blessed youth
            Becomes as agèd, and doth beg the alms
            Of palsied eld;

This must be in apposition to the second half of the sentence. I suppose it means: “When you’re in the prime of youth, you nevertheless have to behave as the agèd do, i.e. begging pitifully, because when you’re young and want to enjoy yourself the only way you can get any money in your pocket is to prostrate yourself before some withered (but wealthy) elder.” It’s very compressed, and the two images of age (a senile beggar, a wrinkled burgher) cross-contaminate each other.

3.1 continued (Isabella/Claudio)

Why does Isabella, in her agony at the end of 2.4, immediately think of going to see Claudio and (specifically) of telling him about Angelo’s proposal? If she has already made up her mind to reject it, what is the use of him knowing about it? The confused reason, I suggest, is that she has not made up her mind. She wants him to take the burden of that decision off her shoulders. If he says “Don’t even think about it – I’ll never permit it” then her agony is over.

Isabella’s optimism is assumed. Inwardly she fears what we fear, and what is thrillingly presented. Claudio realizes the dire significance of his death sentence for the first time; the play finds itself in a tragic mode; his plea to Isabella (instantly repented) is entirely natural and forgiveable – and Isabella’s anger should be, too. These are not the statements of considered opinions but the language of suffering. What provokes Isabella’s suffering is that now she really does have to face it. If she had already faced it she wouldn’t be so angry. Her decision is not already made, whatever she asserts, because (as she has already pointed out to Angelo) a decision is never final until the hour for revocation has actually gone by: “I that do speak a word / May call it back again” (2.2.57-58). She still has time to tell Angelo she’s changed her mind, and that’s in fact what she will do.

3.1 continued (Duke/Isabella)

But Isabella doesn’t have to face it, after all. The Duke’s interruption is performed with great tact, leaving Claudio with the salving impression of his sister’s “gracious denial”. (The stage direction that indicates that Isabella was already “Going” is an editorial interference – we don’t know how the scene might have continued, and the Duke evidently doesn’t want to know.) Isabella continues to breathe virtuous fire, but because the scene with her brother was interrupted in mid-flow this doesn’t mean much (a comic mode is re-asserted). No-one, including Isabella herself, takes her seriously when she swears she would not even bend down or say one word to save Claudio; she will almost immediately state the opposite. As for the question of whether she would really have gone to Angelo’s bed to save Claudio, I think Shakespeare (like the Duke) shelves it and we’ll never know.

The story of Mariana has some relevance to Isabella’s. Mariana has a brother who dies, and whose death precipitates her unhappiness. She is also a woman who is frankly in love, in love (what’s more) despite offence and despite injustice. Mariana, in fact, is one of the play’s object lessons in why a simple of equation of wrongdoing with punishment just won’t work; in this case, because she loves the wrongdoer. Her story also widens Isabella’s focus and takes us away from the sense of “the world crashing in” on Isabella and Claudio, a tension that has pushed the play towards an intimate drama of individual souls.

The scene is frankly expository and practical. In hindsight, one glances back curiously at the discourse of a pair who will later marry each other, but there’s nothing to find here except esteem. For the Duke to express a personal interest in Isabella (even in an aside) would of course risk profound ironies so soon after Angelo’s sexual ambush. In the end, Shakespeare’s concession to the “goodness” of Isabella’s beauty is to provide for her a match in which sexuality is exceptionally subdued.


Isabella, newly charged with energetic purpose, flies out of the prison and takes the plot with her. Shakespeare intends not to go with her, but he represents the energy by a noisy incursion of low-life characters.

The Duke however, remains on stage (primarily as an observer), and the scene seems (among much else) to represent his thought-processes; Shakespeare, however, is careful not to spell these out directly. In a general way the Duke’s thought turns on Angelo’s falling, which he does indeed wonder at (cf. 3.1.188); not unnaturally, he also finds himself drawn into thoughts about himself. What he makes of Elbow, Pompey, Lucio and Mistress Overdone is only partly explicit. Again in a general way, a contrast emerges between the absoluteness of Angelo’s justice and the complicated human material with which justice, seeking to be just, has to contend.

Why then, imprison him. If imprisonment be the due of a bawd, why, ‘tis his right. Bawd is he doubtless, and of antiquity too; bawd-born.

Lucio seems to be unsympathetic to Pompey, but his mode of discourse is so different from Angelo’s that it undermines the simple equation of “bawd means prison”. Pompey is so emphatically a bawd, Lucio says, that he was born into the profession – what else would he be? In Lucio’s eyes bawds are an inescapable fact of life, and Pompey is a bawd by nature. The implication is clear; this sudden outrage on the part of the authorities is made to look rather ridiculous. It’s a blatant case of senior management going through one of those periodic convulsions that are mainly concerned with being seen to take firm action, not with really putting anything right. This justice can do no preventive good if the vice is endemic, and can have no beneficial effect on the prisoner if he cannot imagine being other than he is.   

Lucio’s hilarious blackening of the Duke’s character unsettles the Duke enough to prompt some cautious probing of Escalus. Lucio’s assertions are doubly mistaken, of course. It is the “motion generative” Angelo who is at that moment prostituting his principles so that he can deflower a virgin; while the philosophical Duke is employing his liberty in masquerading as a godly friar, a role for which he has clearly a certain affinity. At the same time who will say that Lucio’s account of Angelo’s absolutism is completely astray? And if it is grossly false that the Duke mouths with beggars, can we deny that the play does show him relishing the company of low life, an instinctive liberal whose government has undoubtedly been licentious?


We need to be shown Mariana because of her important role in the last scene. The Duke’s device is just, but it is clandestine and has something equivocal about it; twice in the scene there is a reference to “eyes”, those witnesses that are to be excluded from the “circummured” garden in the “heavy middle” of the night. Mariana impresses us with her seriousness. Her simple trust in the disguised Duke (who has “often” comforted her, an instance of double time) mollifies our vague disquiet that all the characters are having to traverse delicate territory, but the good manners that are such a feature of the scene confirm its delicacy.

This scene interrupts a long sequence that take place within the prison, but the contrast in setting is not acute. The prison of Measure for Measure is one of the more porous prisons in literature, not because people escape from it (Barnardine can’t be bothered to) but because of the tone set by its gracious Provost, because of unhindered comings and goings by those not under sentence, and also because the tendency of the play is to blur the distinction between the condemned and the free. Besides, Mariana in her “moated grange” is also felt to be in a kind of captivity of her own, and even Angelo in his circummured garden is entrammelled in his own devices. One’s sense is that Angelo by the severity of his government places the whole of his society under sentence, and by going too far undermines the significance of condemnation. 


...And Pompey, himself a prisoner, is now employed in the prison’s functions. But the function in question, though undeniably legal, is scarcely more morally edifying than Pompey’s immemorial profession; in fact when Pompey questions Abhorson, it is Pompey with whom we identify ourselves, as a comparatively normal person. So the blurring continues.

The Duke is caught on the wrong foot by the unexpected nature of Angelo’s message. He has to improvise and is forced to take the Provost somewhat into his confidence. This night-scene is very beautiful; the two good men talking quietly while our minds are on what is happening elsewhere. Justice, we see, is something that is managed clandestinely and humanely, not by public edict.


Pompey, with his list of inmates, once again broadens the social scope of the prison and the play, and his part is then over. Barnardine is effectively a one-scene character (he makes a mute appearance in 5.1), and his impressive appearance marks a final complication to the apparently simple matter of condemning the guilty. He thoroughly discountenances the Duke, both as a holy confessor and as an engineer of crafty solutions; the Duke is in comic despair until sheer luck intervenes.

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair
When it is least expected.

In terms of common humanity the Duke’s behaviour cannot be defended, and the idea of “heavenly comforts of despair” is rather ridiculous, like his quasi-religious philosophizing to Claudio.

But considering the Duke as a governor there is a certain rightness (“I am directed by you”). The Duke intends Isabella to experience to the full the treachery that Angelo intended towards her (which she never would have done if he had said: “It’s OK, your brother’s in safe hands, though there were some unexpectedly tricky moments”). He supplies her with the motive, and then offers her the chance of vengeance; he will make Angelo’s life hang on the outcome.

Lucio’s brief return ends the scene. Shakespearian comedy is a rite as well as a narrative, and at this stage in the play the audience senses by various clues how we are hurrying towards its conclusion. From now on (and this applies to the rest of Act IV) all the scenes are focussed on a culmination in the Duke’s return – nothing looks beyond it, and after Barnardine there is no really new material. The appearance of Lucio allows a brief and somewhat grinçant reprise of his earlier rapport with Isabella, together with a much-abbreviated "slight return" of Lucio’s wild calumnies in 3.2. These scenes are akin to a marshalling of forces, an assurance and also a reminder to the audience, so that we have everything clear in our minds.

But they say the Duke will be here tomorrow.

This is more part of the ritual set of the tide than directly relevant to Lucio. “But” seems to imply that the Duke’s return should be some sort of comfort to Isabella. If I was directing the scene, I’d want the distressed Lucio to say this distractedly, still characteristically rattling on and wanting to cheer her up but with nothing substantial to offer; the effect of the whole speech on Isabella should be painful, and Lucio’s remark should enforce our feeling that the Duke, offering her nothing but redress for what cannot be redressed, has dealt with her very roughly. 


Angelo, whose deeds have been constantly in our mind, has not in fact been seen since 2.4.  This scene is (see above) a “slight return” of the important visual impact of Angelo and Escalus co-governing, and it has a couple of important things to say.

In most uneven and distracted manner. His actions show much like to madness.

This contributes to the comic rite – the Duke’s role is brought into a complex relationship with the festive Lord of Misrule.

It also shows that Angelo is sweating. Plainly accused in his own mind, he finds himself developing the psychological defence of positing madness in those who may do him harm – judge and accuser. (By a similar train of thought, the accused Claudio had earlier tried to come up with some less-defensible ulterior motive in Angelo than mere justice.)  In the short term Angelo gains the faint comfort of hoping that the giddy Duke won’t even show up. And he also prepares on his tongue the counter-accusation he will later make against Isabella.

                                  A deflowered maid,
And by an eminent body that enforced
The law against it!

The irony of Angelo still focussed on his eminent self should not detract from the primary revelation, that he is truly shocked by his own crimes. The full charge of the final scene will not ignite unless we can simultaneously feel that Angelo thoroughly deserves to die and yet that Isabella’s mercy is not a travesty. Angelo must be a sinner and not a devil.

Angelo fears the cravers at the gate, but he takes comfort from the belief that Isabella will be too ashamed to accuse him. Isabella knows more than him, and the Duke knows more than Isabella – a characteristic structure of Shakespearian comedy, though the impact here has no hilarity in it.


The Duke has not been seen in his own attire since 1.3 – his appearance now is an assurance of authority. The Duke’s plan is evidently complex, and some parts of it (e.g. the role of the mute Varrius) are only sketched – they give a generalized impression of executive powers that have lain hidden. Seeing the Duke here, with two strangers, places a distance between him and his recent comrades – intentionally a slightly chilling one. He is to be seen now as a ruler, eminent over the Isabellas as well as the Pompeys. His love for Isabella should come as a complete surprise that sets off a process of re-evaluating what we have seen and not seen.


Isabella and Mariana are talking about Friar Peter; the Duke, though not yet known as the Duke, is already working through intermediaries. Isabella’s point is that she has been told to state publically that Angelo did deflower her; she naturally feels some reluctance. Both the women are anxious, not knowing how the forthcoming scene will develop. But Isabella, grief-stricken and vengeful, is ready to go through with it.

The trumpets ordered in 4.5 have already sounded twice. Dramatic time is hurtling to its resolution.


The final scene begins with a grouping that echoes the first, impressing us with the notion of “coming full circle”. The Duke speaks with warm courtesy, creating an image of settlement that he knows full well is about to be shattered.

               an adulterous thief,
A hypocrite, a virgin-violator  

Isabella certainly can’t be accused, as at the time of her former plea, of being too cold. This is the real thing, not femininely seductive at all but passionate.

                                    Nay, it is ten times strange.

The Duke implies, sarcastically, that it’s a good deal too strange to be true. Isabella takes the hit and flings it back in his face.

                                   No, my good lord,
            Nor wished to hold my peace.

Lucio’s “wished” could possibly mean “wished by someone else”, i.e. “I was not asked to hold my peace”, and that would be a rational rejoinder to “You were not bid to speak”. But impertinence seems more in Lucio’s character – I think he’s saying that he just felt like speaking up. The Duke, of course, takes up “wish” in its other sense. He is both nettled and amused, and almost turns comic himself with “That’s somewhat madly spoken”. But this is only a brief lightening of mood before Isabella continues with her accusations and meets with the Duke’s total rejection. Phase one, with its tragic accent, is over.

With Isabella under guard, the scene moves into its next phase; a virtuoso confusion that begins with Lucio (though warmly on Isabella’s side) speaking out against her mentor “Friar Lodowick” while Friar Peter springs to his defence at the same time as he refutes all of Isabella’s claims.

Do you not smile at this, Lord Angelo?

The form of the question implies that Angelo is not smiling, and no wonder. He must be hard-pressed to imagine what disproof there can be of accusations that, as he thinks he knows, are all too true. But the Duke no doubt extorts from him the forced smile that Angelo refers to later. The Duke calls for seats as if for a rich entertainment; it verges on parody of the play scene in Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the comfortable laughter of its gentlefolk. Lucio, at any rate, enjoys it hugely.

Cucullus non facit monachum.

In some sense Lucio is right. Talking consistently with brain disengaged, he somehow intuits that the monk isn’t all he seems, and the Duke is indeed a duke of dark corners.

            Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble

The Duke speaking out against his own misgovernment is unexpected, and a further softening of his manipulativeness – he doesn’t spare himself. At any rate it sparks Angelo (who might agree with this bleak picture, and who has already identified the friar as his most dangerous enemy) into breaking his silence.

The next phase ends with Angelo seeing the Duke in the Friar. All at once he knows that the game is up, and the sentence death – he calls it upon himself, not so much in belated repentance (he has done all he can to get out of it) but because in his own proud professionalism he sees what the outcome must be.

                                      I am still
            Attorneyed at your service.

            ..... dear maid ....... O most kind maid

The Duke, much moved, is trembling on the brink of his avowals: Claudio lives, and I love you... But he mustn’t make things easy on Isabella.

Look, if it please you, on this man condemned
As if my brother lived.

The Duke has by his remarks stacked the dice against Angelo. He has even appealed to Isabella’s family pride, which should direct her (as it did before) to unpitying principle.

It’s the way in which Isabella pleads for Angelo’s life that perhaps more than anything else has made her seem an unattractive character. We think that she betrays what is due to her brother, firstly by naming him guilty and secondly by logic-chopping about Angelo’s attempt to coerce sex with her, as if that were Angelo’s principal offence. But her opening words should be understood in a second sense; the condemned Angelo appears as a double of the condemned Claudio, and when she pleads for Angelo she honours Claudio’s memory in a different way, not as a brother crying for vengeance but as a guilty man who too might have lived. It’s a challenge for the actress, I think.

            If he be like your brother, for his sake
            Is he pardoned, and for your lovely sake,
            Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
            He is my brother too. But fitter time for that.
            By this Lord Angelo perceives he’s safe;
            Methinks I see a quickening in his eye....
This is a challenge too. The business should be: Isabella goes straight to Claudio and falls into his arms. The Duke, overcome by her emotion, goes up to them, and manages to take her hand. The three stand together – the Duke takes Claudio’s hand too. Then, from the centre of this outbreak of joy, he looks over his shoulder and speaks to Angelo – with laughter in his eyes, but with a bitter taunt at how the man who has just craved death (ungenerously to his new wife) cannot help showing that he thinks he’s off the hook.

            I find an apt remission in myself....

The Duke is dealing out mercy all round, but these judgments spring from a flood of feeling now (and from being caught up in the play’s surprisingly festive ending).

I have confessed her and I know her virtue.

This is the Duke speaking of Mariana, and is a surprising concession to Angelo’s claim that the main reason he broke with Mariana was that “her reputation was disvalued / In levity” (5.1.219-20). When the matter was first discussed, the Duke spoke of Angelo “pretending in her discoveries of dishonour”. Those discoveries were mistaken, but “pretending” does not necessarily imply that Angelo never believed them. Given the character of Angelo as we see it in the play, it does indeed seem more likely that he’d dump Mariana because he was worried about a point of honour than merely because he’d lost a dowry. (But the story of the loss of Frederick and the dowry would then be irrelevant, so the basic implication must indeed be that Angelo made false allegations because he was ashamed of seeming mercenary. Let’s say that the Duke recognizes that Angelo, so conventional in his values, had persuaded himself that such an unfortunate woman must also be morally tainted.)

Did the Duke intend that Angelo should live or die? The impersonal momentum of the comic ritual points to Angelo escaping death. To the extent that one regards the Duke as a benevolent deus ex machina and a master of the revels, a scene-master who manipulates the complexities of this long finale, one tends to assume that the Duke never intended Angelo’s death (just as earlier in the play he always intended to spare Claudio).

But this assumption should, I fancy, be resisted. If we give way to it, then the Duke’s role-playing will tend to be seen as a dearly-purchased prolongation of dramatic excitement, the duplicitous approach being cruel, and primarily at Isabella’s expense.

Though the Duke’s reserve is nearly complete, there is a chain of small indications that his personal intention when he sets up this scene is to finish Angelo off. He intends, certainly, to put Angelo through the psychological mill, hoist him by his own petard, and I think it should be seen that it is Isabella’s mercy, not the Duke’s, that saves Angelo.

These small indications include the excessive flattery at line 9ff (working up his anger), the dark irony of 27 and 165, the continuous awareness in everything the Duke says during his masquerade of how it is affecting Angelo (e.g. 59ff, 110ff), his care to show Angelo to Isabella in the worst possible light, the finality of his condemnation at 410, the bitterness of 491, and the residual bitterness against Lucio (496ff). Cumulatively they convey the Duke’s detestation of someone who perverts the image of himself as ruler (cf 122). The Duke has learnt the frustration of being on the other side of the fence, opposing the absolute power of the “eminent body”. He has also learnt the error of his own former reluctance to wield the sword of justice – an error he does not mean to repeat.

What I am suggesting is that in this scene as in the rest of the play, though the Duke holds the most powerful cards things do not entirely work out according his own agenda, and that in fact he has to swallow his own feelings (but he does it sincerely, in the end) in order that comedy may finally triumph. He joins the festivities.


This is a good example of how the play could once be taken, from Frederick D. Losey’s 1927 Introduction:

...To her brother’s weakness she will bring her strength, and to his confusion and terror she will lend her calm. But no; her character shivers to fragments under the test... From this moment she becomes the tool of the foolish and shifty Duke who, disguised as a Friar, has no difficulty in persuading her to bring about between Angelo and Marianna exactly the same offence for which Claudio was sentenced to die. From this point on the play strikes almost the level of farce. Isabella, who bade Claudio perish, later pleads for the life of Angelo, supposedly her brother’s murderer. Justice is blown to the winds and in its place is substituted a kind of bastard mercy...

Such Victorian conceptions as the “test” (of a true woman’s character) and the “tool” (the ultimate insult in a code where gentlefolk are, by definition, not in service) trap Losey into taking up a position as fierce as Angelo’s, or indeed Isabella’s: if Isabella falls short of womanly sainthood then her existence is an offence and the whole play is a disfigurement. Nevertheless Losey by his own lights is making a true response to the underlying drift of the play, though much ruffled by its critique of idealistic principles – I quite like his insight of “bastard mercy”, though I feel differently about it.

The assertion that Angelo tries to commit murder has survived, e.g. into J. M. Nosworthy’s introduction (1969), but this is not self-evident. The charge originates with Isabella: “That Angelo’s a murderer, is’t not strange?” (5.1.39); however, she later retracts it: “My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died” (5.1.445-46). When Angelo hastens the execution of a guilty man he does an evil thing because he breaks his word to Isabella, but this is treachery not murder. Perhaps the counter-argument might run like this: because Angelo now knows himself to be guilty of Claudio’s sin, the validity of the judicial process has been cancelled, even in Angelo’s own eyes; therefore Claudio is no longer sentenced to death and executing him is murder.


“Power, Prison, and Peace with God” is the title of Jonathan Aitken’s current lecture tour. Disgraced before human justice, Christian mercy may be a way to steady the rocking soul.     


(2005, 2014)



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