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Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary



At a monastery outside Vienna, the Duke confers with Friar Thomas, a monk. The Duke asks for permission to stay with the monks in secret, disguising himself as a member of their order. The plan, he explains, is to give Angelo time to restore strict justice in Vienna after 14 years of excessively lax rule. Friar Thomas asks why the Duke does not administer justice himself. The Duke answers that if he were to do so, he would be hated as a tyrant for suddenly reversing his own lenient policies: "Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope, / 'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them / For what I bid them do." Moreover, the Duke says, he wishes to test Angelo's true character by letting him enjoy absolute power for a time. He knows Angelo to be unmoved by emotion, believing "Lord Angelo is precise; / Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / That his blood flows or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see, / If power change purpose."


Friar Thomas's question is a good one, which might be phrased, more pointedly, as "Why doesn't the Duke clean up his own mess?" The Duke gives multiple reasons for his absenteeism, and his excuses are superficially appealing but not ultimately very convincing. He claims, for example, to be letting Angelo rule just long enough to reveal his true nature. Yet the reign of terror in Acts 3 and 4 suggests that this is a high-risk way of testing one man's morality. Likewise, if he really feared overwhelming the citizens with a sudden policy change, he could have granted an amnesty period, as real-world lawmakers have sometimes done. For that matter, he could have appointed the more lenient Escalus as interim ruler and then come back to do the dirty work of enforcement himself.

Ultimately, like other powerful father figures in Shakespeare—Prospero in The Tempest for example—the Duke is just a bit too concerned with saving face. Instead of employing his own wisdom to right the city's wrongs, he foists the job onto Angelo, who eagerly imposes order on "corrupt" Vienna. In doing so, the Duke seems to think he is sparing himself from being "slandered" for "tyranny." When he revisits the city in disguise, he will discover his reputation with the citizenry is not as positive as he had thought.

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