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Measure for Measure | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Measure for Measure | Themes


Mercy versus Justice

The conflict between mercy and justice is the headline issue of Measure for Measure. How, the play asks, can a ruler dispense unbiased justice without being excessively strict or overly lenient? Shakespeare offers no simple answer to this question but instead explores different approaches and shows the flaws of each (and few of the merits). The Duke is, by his own admission, excessively lax in enforcing the laws of his city. He frets about his failures in this regard, not so much because the laws themselves are just as because the citizens now fail to respect the law at all. In a repentant speech to Friar Thomas (Act 1, Scene 3), the Duke likens himself to a father who has failed to discipline his children. Consequently, the children, or Viennese citizens, have become unruly brats, and the laws "Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead ... / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum."

Angelo, in contrast, is unrelentingly strict—excessively so, as nearly all the play's characters agree. Indeed the Duke is the sole character to consistently defend Angelo's harsh style of justice. Angelo argues, apparently in all sincerity, that stern and consistent enforcement of the law is better for everyone because it prevents future offenders from even considering the same crime. In his view, the law's purpose is not only to prevent people from materially harming one another but to enforce a kind of moral discipline on the citizens. Even Claudio, Angelo reasons, is morally saved from himself by being executed before he can offend again. This interpretation of the law and its role is markedly different from the modern conception of criminal justice and from the restorative justice the Duke practices at the end of the play.

The waggish gentleman Lucio, not otherwise known for his wisdom, succinctly explains the contrast between the two systems in Act 1, Scene 4. There, he complains of "use and liberty"—here meaning excessive liberty—"run[ning] by the hideous law / As mice by lions." Under the Duke, in other words, citizens scoffed at the law and scorned its majesty. The situation under Angelo, however, is hardly better, for Angelo is cold and unfeeling to the point of tyranny. Lucio, a decidedly hot-blooded character, cannot mean to be complimentary when he describes Angelo's blood as "snow-broth."

Concerns about the fairness and integrity of the justice system were widespread in Shakespeare's day, as critic John Mullan notes in the 2016 article "Measure for Measure and Punishment." Shakespeare's audiences, Mullan argues, would have been quite aware of the "inconsistency" with which different crimes were prosecuted and offenders sentenced. Some, like Puritan reformers, thought the English justice system too lenient and wanted to see strict sentences handed out more consistently. Others, including the real-life Pompey Bums and Mistress Overdone of London's red-light district, doubtless found the penalties too harsh—at least when it came to their trade. Measure for Measure reflects both points of view, but it never shows Vienna as reaching the longed-for state of fair and consistent law enforcement. Instead the Duke simply pardons everyone in the play's final scene. This grand but self-defeating gesture is a kind of "anti-sentence" that puts the crimes of murder, fornication, and slander on an equal legal footing.


The play's treatment of justice is complicated by the human frailty of its characters, including those in power. Angelo, the virtuous deputy who succumbs to temptation, is the prime example. At the beginning of the play, he is an unusually harsh ruler, and perhaps a killjoy—Pompey Bum certainly thinks so—but he is not yet a hypocrite. Everything he does, he insists, is for the good of the city and its populace, and at this point he may well be sincere in saying so. He punishes criminals, including those whose crimes are victimless, in such a way as to deter similar behavior. In Act 1, Scene 2 he goes so far as to order his officers to escort Claudio through town as a sort of public warning to other offenders, an act comparable to a modern "perp walk." One sign of Angelo's sincerity is his pronounced willingness to submit to the same strict justice if he should be found committing a similar crime. "When I that censure [Claudio] do so offend," he insists, "let mine own judgment pattern out my death, / And nothing come in partial." As yet Angelo cannot imagine himself giving in to the kinds of base temptations that would lead to a "crime" like Claudio's.

Angelo's hypocrisy begins in earnest when he recognizes the lustful impulse within himself but continues to act as though he is unsusceptible to it. He is, at first, shocked to realize he is not so different from Claudio and all the other hot-blooded men and women of the city—the very people over whom he previously sat in judgment. Wiser persons might respond by accepting their own fallible natures and thus resolving to be a little gentler toward others—for example, not decapitating young men for getting their girlfriends pregnant. Angelo, however, is fairly unhinged by the contrast between his record of past virtue and this new impulse to sin. He makes the classic villain's mistake of blaming others—in this case God and the Devil—for his feelings and his responses to them. Little by little Angelo rationalizes his predatory behavior by insisting on his own status as a victim. He complains of having prayed for chastity and inner strength but not having received any, thus putting the responsibility for his actions squarely on God. The madness stops only when Angelo is arrested by the Duke and forced to a public reckoning of his actions as deputy.

Nor is the Duke a poster child for moral consistency. He is the one to utter the famous couplet about justice and retribution: "Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure." This sounds like an excellent ideal to live up to: punishments should be exactly and consistently proportionate to the crimes committed. The trouble is that the Duke fails to follow his own advice. In a world where "measure" was really given "for measure," Lucio, who spreads some unflattering rumors about the Duke, would never receive the same sentence as Angelo, who perverts the course of justice to gratify his own lust. Yet this is exactly what happens when the Duke comes back to town. He promises to have Angelo and Lucio both executed, despite the vast difference between their crimes, then ends up pardoning both.


The term liberty is bandied about frequently in Measure for Measure. Its meaning only partly overlaps with the idealistic Enlightenment-era use of the word, as in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." More often Shakespeare uses it to connote excessive freedom, or an abuse of freedom. For Shakespeare's audience, it would also have invoked the "liberties," the sections of London just outside the city's walls and legal jurisdiction, where all kinds of less-than-respectable pleasures—including the theaters themselves—were situated. Claudio uses the word to refer to unchecked freedom when he blames his imprisonment on "too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty." The problem, as he understands it, is not the curtailment of his personal freedoms by the Duke's laws. He does not complain about the excessive harshness of a law decreeing whom he may and may not sleep with. Rather the problem lies in his inability to govern his own desires, such as the desire to go to bed with Juliet before their marriage is formalized. "Liberty," though it may sound odd from a modern perspective, is widely viewed as a nuisance in Shakespeare's Vienna.

For the Duke and Angelo, the problem can be conceptualized as an attempt to keep the citizens from taking excessive "liberties" with the law, and with one another. The Duke speaks to this issue early in the play when he complains that "liberty plucks justice by the nose." Angelo magnifies the Duke's concerns by insisting on policies that prevent future crime by punishing present crime severely. Reining in the citizens now, he argues, will prevent them from harming themselves later. Even Lucio, a character whose own love of freedom prevents him from marrying, understands Angelo's basic desire "to give fear to use and liberty." He may question Angelo's excessive zeal for the task, but he understands the basic moral impulse that underlies it.

A little liberty, Angelo believes, creates a desire for more. His own sad experiences prove this true when he finds himself sliding from mere lust for Isabella into threats and coercion. "I have begun," he half-gloats, half-laments, "and now I give my sensual race the rein." Even an Angelo, it seems, can succumb to a downward spiral of ever-expanding and less disciplined liberties. But the tendency is hardly unique to Angelo, for much earlier Claudio likens human nature to a rat that gorges on food, heedless of whether it is poison. This comparison raises a further question: should rulers grant their subjects the "liberty" to engage in activities deemed immoral or self-destructive by society? The Duke and Angelo both answer this question with a "no," although only the latter really follows through on his conviction. The "yes" side of the argument is left to the characters traditionally seen as "lowlifes," including the sex-industry spokesman Pompey Bum.

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