I need to start this post with a disclaimer: in real life, I am a feminist in every sense of the word. I feel like I have to say this because there may be some decidedly unfeminist ideas about Measure for Measure in this review. You’re allowed to hate me for them – I myself can’t believe some of the things I want to discuss. Measure for Measure does that to you, though – it turns you around, and fills you conflict. And that’s why it’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces.
I find that there are two ways for us to look at Measure for Measure: it can be black and white in that we can look at Isabella as the heroine, and Angelo as the villain. Or, it can be a little grey. No heroes or villains – just people. I think that a black and white Measure for Measure is extraordinarily boring. A grey one? Possibly the best play you’ll ever read in your life.
We open in Vienna, where the Duke has decided to take a little vacation. To Poland, maybe – but it’s nobody’s business, apparently. What’s important is that he’s left Deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo, as it happens, sees things in black and white. He will do anything so that justice (or what he considers justice) can prevail – anything. So he enforces a law against fornication. The brothels are shut down, and a certain someone is arrested.
Well, well. There’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all.
Who’s that, I pray thee?
Marry, sir, that’s Claudio, Signior Claudio.
Claudio to prison? ‘Tis not so.
It is so, sadly. Claudio is sent to prison – his girlfriend Juliet is pregnant, and that means that he was the first one to break Angelo’s ridiculous law. As he’s being escorted to jail, Claudio begs his friend Lucio to seek out his sister, Isabella, so that she may beg Angelo for his life.
The Duke, meanwhile, is still in Vienna.
My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed,
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth and cost witless bravery keeps.
I have delivered to Lord Angelo,
A man of stricture and firm abstinence,
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me traveled to Poland,
For so I have strewed it in the common ear,
And so it is received. Now, pious sir,
You will demand of me why I do this.
Gladly, my lord.
We have strict statues and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use – in time the rod
More mocked and feared – so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose,
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
The Duke, essentially, has been doing a pretty terrible job of upholding the law in Vienna. Everything has gone topsy-turvy, and his lenient ways mean that the people do not fear him. There have been no repercussions. So, instead of dealing with this the way a normal person would, the Duke decides to dramatically put Angelo in charge so that he can creep around in disguise and watch to see if Vienna gets any better.
You can imagine my sarcasm when I say that this is an incredible plan, nothing will go wrong, and that the Duke is a genius.
Lucio arrives at Isabella’s strict nunnery – Isabella wouldn’t mind one bit if it were stricter, actually. She is incredibly invested in becoming a nun. Luckily for Lucio, he’s arrived just in time. She’s a novice yet. He explains Claudio’s situation to her, and asks her to go to Angelo.
Alas, what poor ability’s in me
To do him good?
Assay the power you have.
My power? Alas, I doubt –
Isabella genuinely doubts that she can win Angelo over. Like Desdemona, I could immediately see how one might play Isabella incorrectly. She can come off as hesitant, even a little meek, but there is a fire in Isabella. And it’s that fire that ends up knocking Angelo off of his feet.
As Isabella goes off to find Angelo, Escalus, a judge, is asking him to maybe chill out a little bit.
Ay, but yet, let us be keen and rather cut a little
Than fall and bruise to death. Alas, this gentleman
Whom I would save had a most noble father.
Let but your Honor know,
Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue,
That, in the working of your own affections,
Had time cohered with place, or place with wishing,
Or that the resolute acting of your blood
Could have attained th’ effect of your own purpose,
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Erred in this point which now you censure him,
And pulled the law upon you.
‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny
The jury passing on the prisoner’s life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes. What knows the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take ‘t
Because we see it; but what we do not see,
We tread upon and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offense
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When that I censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.
Escalus is very kindly – and a bit of a pushover. Obviously, if Angelo were in Claudio’s place, he’d hope for mercy. But Escalus is speaking to somebody who literally cannot relate to Claudio. That is something that we have to acknowledge about Angelo – he has spent his entire life walking the straightest, cleanest path he possibly could. They say his blood is ice water, so when it comes to sex and love, it’s fair to say that he simply does not understand. And with no understanding, there can be no mercy.
He decides to execute Claudio the very next day. The others are uncomfortable with this.
What’s the matter, provost?
Is it your will Claudio shall die tomorrow?
Did I not tell thee yea? Hadst thou not order?
Why dost thou ask again?
Lest I might be too rash.
Under your good correction, I have seen
When, after execution, judgement hath
Repented o’er his doom.
Go to. Let that be mine.
Do you your office, or give up your place
And you shall be well spared.
Shockingly, I am going to try to be as understanding of Angelo as I can be. Giving him the tidy label of villain takes all the interest out of this play. In this post, there will be no heroes, heroines or villains.
That said, I’m sure we can all agree that Angelo is far too severe a person. He is confident in what he’s chosen to do – so confident, in fact, that he’s willing to deal with the executioner’s guilt that the provost is warning him about. Why shouldn’t he be willing to deal with it? After all, it’ll never come. Not to Angelo.
Isabella finally arrives with Lucio in tow. Angelo is short with her, already knowing that he won’t be budging.
Well, what’s your suit?
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice,
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not.
Isabella is very diplomatic in her approach. She tries to reason with Angelo by very honestly expressing that she understands that her brother had done something awful. But Angelo has no pity for Claudio. Isabella gives up almost instantly, and makes to leave.
LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
Give ‘t not o’er so. To him again, entreat him,
Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown.
You are too cold. If you should need a pin,
You could with more tame a tongue desire it.
To him, I say.
ISABELLA, [to Angelo]
Must he needs to die?
Lucio tells Isabella she is being too cold – only passion can melt Angelo’s icy front. Angelo has already dismissed this conversation. I could see him in my mind, his back turned to the door. I could see Isabella turn around suddenly, and ask him for mercy once again. And I can sense why that would leave him reeling.
So far, absolutely nobody has argued with Angelo. We have seen the provost and Escalus very meekly try to reason with him – and we have seen how one sharp reprimand from Angelo causes them to drop all their suits. What he says goes. But now, in his office, he has a nun that won’t back down.
He’s sentenced. ‘Tis too late.
LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
You are too cold.
Too late? Why, no. I that do speak a word
May call it back again. Well believe this:
No ceremony that to great ones longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe
Become them with half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you, and you as he,
You would have slipped like him, but he like you
Would not have been so stern.
Pray you begone.
Isabella speaks passionately, and all Angelo can do is ask her to leave. I think he has no idea how else to respond. Isabella doesn’t leave.
Your brother is a forfeit of the law,
And you but waste your words.
Why all the souls that were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be
If He which is the top of judgement should
But judge as you are? O, think on that,
And mercy will breathe within your lips
Like man new-made.
Be you content, fair maid.
It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him. He must die tomorrow.
Angelo’s responses grow longer the more impassioned Isabella becomes. It’s like he bristles, and realizes that Isabella won’t be going down without a fight. He tells her that she is wasting her words, but he begins to do the same.
Yet show some pity.
I show it most of all when I show justice,
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismissed offense would after gall,
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies tomorrow; be content.
So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he that suffers. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
I adore Isabella’s lines up there – her words apply to so many things, and even to situations that we experience now in the modern world. She absolutely refuses to back down. And what’s amazing is that Isabella is not speaking nonsense – and I think that this is what unnerves Angelo most of all.
That in the captain’s but a choleric word
Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.
LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
Art avised ‘o that? More on ‘t.
Why do you put these sayings on me?
I was very struck by Angelo’s question to Isabella, because it was almost like he was betraying himself. It was such a change from his stern, severe replies. Does he ask this question with an offended tone? Or is he flabbergasted, unsure how to deal with Isabella?
She responds –
Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself
That skins the vice o’ th’ top. Go to your bosom.
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life.
She speaks, and ’tis such sense
That my sense breeds with it.
[He begins to exit.]
Fare you well.
Gentle my lord, turn back.
I will bethink me. Come again tomorrow.
Hark how I’ll bribe you. Good my lord, turn back.
How? Bribe me?
Angelo, cold Angelo, finds himself filled with something he has never experienced before: lust. So he makes to leave, and the sharp tone he was using throughout this entire act dissipates as he attempts to make his escape. I can imagine how he might absolutely freeze when Isabella calls after him, and how he might turn to face her and ask shakily, “How? Bribe me?” Isabella is being completely innocent, of course. It is Angelo whose blood has run cold because it’s almost like she knows what he hopes for her to bribe him with.
He manages to get rid of Isabella – but she’ll be back tomorrow. Angelo is left alone.
Save your Honor.
[She exits, with Lucio and Provost.]
From thee, even from thy virtue.
What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she, nor doth tempt; but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What does thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live.
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges seal themselves. What, do I love her
And feast upon her eyes? What is ‘t I dream on?
O cunning enemy that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook. Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how.
This is why I can’t call Angelo a villain. Every so often, he has these startling moments of clarity. And, unlike Shakespeare’s other villains, he doesn’t delight in his evil. If anything, he’s disgusted by it. Angelo is no villain – he’s just a man feeling a rush of emotion like he has never felt before. It does not excuse any of his later actions, but it’s worth noting. Angelo (and by extension, Shakespeare’s) question of whether the tempter or the tempted is at fault is absolutely fantastic. Why would a man in Elizabethan England put such a question down on his page?
Angelo wonders if he only feels this way because he wants to corrupt her innocence. He’s wrong, of course. He feels this way because Isabella has challenged him in a way other women have not.
We come to 2.4, which is arguably the best act in this entire play. If you Google Measure for Measure, you’ll mostly hear crickets. But if you really look, you’ll find discussions about 2.4 because it is that good.
When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my intervention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel. God in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew His name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception. The state whereon I studied
Is, like a good thing being often read,
Grown sere and tedious. Yea, my gravity,
Wherein – let no man hear me – I take pride,
Could I with boot change for an idle plume
Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.
Let’s write “good angel” on the devil’s horn.
‘Tis not the devil’s crest.
Angelo, while waiting for Isabella, is still agonizing over his lust for her. In Shakespeare’s plays, names are very often shortened. Desdemona becomes Desdemon, Cressida becomes Cressid. But there is something so intimate about Angelo’s use of Isabel instead of Isabella. I was almost offended for her, and shocked that he would say her name like that. But he says that she has been filling his thoughts – he can’t pray, he can’t think – so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
I really enjoyed the line, “Blood, thou art blood.” Angelo, possibly for the first time, is acknowledging that he’s a human man, and is subject to sexual appetite like others are. But this acknowledgement is dangerous – it could act as an excuse for what he’s about to do.
Isabella arrives, and Angelo panics at the sudden flood of heat he feels. But when she enters, he tries to stifle all of that.
How now, fair maid?
I am come to know your pleasure.
Immediately, Angelo is thrown off. Angelo feels each of Isabella’s words in his bones – everything she says reminds him of how badly he wants her.
And Isabella? She’s just here for Claudio.
Say you so? Then I shall pose you quickly:
Which had you rather, that the most just law
Now took your brother’s life, or, to redeem him,
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she hath stained?
Sir, believe this:
I had rather give my body than my soul.
Isabella is incredibly self-sacrificial, and just cannot seem to hear what Angelo is trying to say.
Admit no other way to save his life –
As I subscribe not that, nor any other –
But, in the loss of question, that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-binding law, and that there were
No earthly mean to save him but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer,
What would you do?
Angelo tries to pose a hypothetical situation to Isabella, but she does not respond the way he hopes. She absolutely would not sacrifice her body – absolutely not. He continues to push.
Plainly conceive I love you.
My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for ‘t.
He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.
Curiously, Angelo tells Isabella that he loves her. I’m not sure that he does – but what I’m sure of is that he thinks he does. Angelo has no idea how to process the way Isabella makes him feel. And Isabella, bless her, turns the conversation back to her brother. She knows her purpose, and will not stray from it.
Isabella, understandably, is shocked that Angelo would proposition her like this. She threatens to tell everybody, and Angelo immediately becomes defensive.
Who will believe thee, Isabel?
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. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein.
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes
That banish what they sue for. Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
By ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,
Or by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.
There are two things that are wrong with Angelo, two things that make him behave this way: one is that he is completely incapable of properly and sensibly dealing with the feelings he has for Isabella. And two, he now has the Duke’s power under his belt, and knows he’s untouchable. Angelo is attracted to Isabella because she challenges him – but he draws the line at being refused. Has anybody ever refused Angelo before?
Still, he is not a villain, but rather a fallen angel, as Shakespeare clearly meant for him to be when he named him Angelo. And there’s that frustratingly intimate ‘Isabel,’ once again.
A comment about this scene before I go into Isabella’s last soliloquy. I haven’t seen a full production of Measure for Measure, nor have I seen the BBC version in its entirety (I tried, but found myself unable to enjoy it). Regardless, I noticed that when 2.4 is put on, directors put in a lot of physical manipulation on Angelo’s part. A quick image search will show you Angelo with Isabella pinned down to his table, or with her arm twisted behind her back and pressed against him. But I propose that no physical contact should take place. Angelo is fired up, yes, but I don’t think he’d touch Isabella. I think this scene is much more intriguing if no touching takes place at all – if all Angelo did was move closer and closer to Isabella without touching her, I’d be a happy audience member. It would add to the tension more than if we allowed Angelo to handle Isabella. Also, would Angelo handle her violently? Maybe, but maybe not. Angelo knows what he’s doing is wrong, and he has certainly snapped in this scene to the point where manhandling could make sense. But let us consider that for Angelo, snapping could very well mean standing uncomfortably close. Snapping could mean clenched fists. He has spent his whole life as a block of ice – I highly doubt he’d go from zero to a hundred just like that. Or, if we let Angelo touch her, let him snatch his hand back immediately – because he knows that he’s doing something wrong. He knows, and just can’t stop himself from continuing to proposition her. And the purity and passion he sees in Isabella makes the touch burn enough for him to break contact. Again, whether or not Angelo is truly a villain is in our hands. When we choose how he handles Isabella in this scene, we are choosing a label for him once and for all.
Isabella is left alone.
To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me? O, perilous mouths,
That bear in them one and the selfsame tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof,
Bidding the law make curtsy to their will,
Hooking both right and wrong to th’ appetite,
To follow as it draws. I’ll to my brother.
Though he hath fall’n by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honor
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he’d yield them up
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorred pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die.
More than our brother is our chastity.
I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.
I felt terrible for Isabella here, because there’s absolutely nobody she can complain to. Who would listen to her? Angelo wasn’t lying when he said his spotless reputation would protect him. She feels confident that Claudio wouldn’t want her to free him in this way, so she makes for the prison to tell him that it’s a lost cause.
When Isabella tells Claudio what has happened, he is understandably offended for her. She thinks he’s on her side, but then he hesitates.
Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.
O, you beast!
Now we must ask ourselves a very important question: is Isabella in the wrong here? Is she being overly self-righteous? Is her chastity equal to his life?
Just as Angelo isn’t the villain of this story, Isabella is not the heroine. I say this because – and you might want to punch me for this – I think that they’re too similar to be on different ends of the moral spectrum. Angelo is too severe when it comes to the law, and he allows his power to consume him as well. Similarly, Isabella is too severe when it comes to her own chastity, and she allows her dedication to it to prevent her from being more sensitive with her brother. That isn’t to say that she should agree to Angelo’s deal – she shouldn’t have to. I’m saying that calling Claudio a beast is decidedly harsh for someone like Isabella. But it makes sense, because she is like Angelo.
The Duke (did you forget about him? I did.) appears dresses as a Friar – he pulls Isabella aside after her fight with Claudio and tells her about Mariana, Angelo’s ex-fiancée. Long story short, Angelo abandoned Mariana when her brother and dowry were lost at sea. And, because Angelo is who he is, he was awful to Mariana after the fact.
Can this be so? Did Angelo leave her?
DUKE, [as Friar]
Left her in her tears and dried not one of them with his comfort, swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them but relents not.
None of this surprises me, really. Isabella is shocked at Angelo, but she doesn’t realize that before meeting her, he had no feelings. Why should he have cared about Mariana? Again, that’s not to say he’s in the right, but I’m trying to carefully skirt around calling him a straight up rotten-to-the-core person. Angelo is who he is, and that’s all I can say.
The Duke/Friar is bringing up Mariana because he has a plan. Isabella will accept Angelo’s deal, but Mariana will take her place. Simple, and suspiciously similar to the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well.
I didn’t think much about this particular plot device until my roommate/friend (who, unfortunately for her, has to listen to my passionate outbursts about the plays I’m reading) mentioned that it was uncomfortable, because the men in question couldn’t possibly consent to it. And, you know what? She’s right. So often we look at Shakespeare’s plays though Elizabethan England colored glasses – but if we can’t look at something through a modern lens then, as Harold C. Goddard put it once, it’s nothing but a historical artifact. And since I see Shakespeare’s plays as being far more than artifacts, I should take a moment to criticize this plot device. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Angelo isn’t in the right here. In fact, he’s very much in the wrong. He’s dealing with these newfound emotions of his in the worst possible way, and he knows it. But Isabella, the Duke/Friar, and Mariana aren’t in the right either. When we hear about how Angelo left Mariana, we hear it from the Duke/Friar, who is arguably an unreliable narrator. We don’t know every single reason Angelo didn’t want to be with Mariana, and it isn’t right to force him into a tryst with her. So although it would be great if everything were pretty and clear cut, nothing really is in Measure for Measure.
And there are two other things for us to think about. First, why did Isabella agree to this so quickly? Well, possibly because she and her brother ended their argument on bad terms. Isabella’s compassion could only be stretched so far, but she still leaves the jail feeling guilty. So she agrees quickly so that balance may be restored.
The second thing is this: if the Duke knows this about Angelo, then why did he leave him in charge? I’m starting to think that his desire to see Vienna become lawful is bullshit – maybe he knew this would happen. Maybe he knows Angelo better than he lets on.
So Mariana sleeps with Angelo, but he thinks it’s Isabella. Claudio should be safe, right?
No, actually, because Angelo sends an order that Claudio be put to death the very next morning. This is going to be very difficult for me to explain away, because this is clearly a very villainous act. But I’m going to try.
Angelo gets what he wants when he spends the night with ‘Isabella,’ but that doesn’t change the fact that, as a character, he is very aware of the terrible thing he’s done. He is beyond thinking sensibly – he hasn’t thought sensibly since he met Isabella. If he leaves Claudio alive, then people will see that the law is just as lax as it was before. If he leaves Claudio alive, people will suspect something between him and Isabella. But if he gets what he wants and has Claudio killed, then what could happen to him, really? This isn’t necessarily a villainous person’s train of thought – this is the train of thought of someone who has been panicking for a few acts now. I don’t really pity Angelo, but I make an effort to see him as a human, because this play becomes a lot more fascinating as a result.
The Duke/Friar makes it so that Angelo is sent the disguised head of another prisoner. He hides Claudio away…and tells Isabella that her brother is dead.
DUKE, [as Friar]
He hath released him, Isabel, from the world.
His head is off, and sent to Angelo.
Nay, but it is not so.
DUKE, [as Friar]
It is no other.
Show your wisdom, daughter, in your close patience.
O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!
DUKE, [as Friar]
You shall not be admitted to his sight.
Unhappy Claudio, wretched Isabel,
Injurious world, most damnèd Angelo!
Perhaps worse than Angelo is the Duke himself. Keeping Isabella in the dark like this is a terrible thing to do – she is overcome with grief, which she expresses as anger and a desire to pluck Angelo’s eyes out.
But the Duke/Friar tells her that the Duke will be back from Poland (sure) soon, and that she’ll be able to have her revenge on Angelo. She can tell the ‘Duke’ how Angelo forced her to spend the night with him.
Angelo hears about the Duke’s return. Although everything has been essentially swept away, he is still anguished.
This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant
And dull to all proceedings. A deflowered maid,
And by an eminent body that enforced
The law against it. But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears a credent bulk
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have lived,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge
By so receiving a dishonored life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had lived.
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right. We would, and we would not.
Angelo regrets killing Claudio, and even regrets forcing Isabella into having sex with him. Again, this is a startling moment of clarity. He isn’t pleased with what he’s done – and now that the fervor has died off, he feels shame. How can we call Angelo a villain if he does not present us with a smug, self-satisfied front?
The last act is pretty long, but also pretty fantastic. Everything happens all at once, and it’s exhilarating. Isabella appears before the Duke, who isn’t in disguise anymore, and demands justice.
Justice, O royal duke. Vail your regard
Upon a wronged – I would fain have said, a maid.
O worthy prince, dishonor not your eye
By throwing it on any other object
Till you have heard me in my true complaint
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice.
The repetition of the word justice at the end there really works. Isabella is a fantastic speaker, and she always demands the attention of everybody around her. I really do love that about her.
Isabella explains all to the Duke – and she even calls Angelo an archvillain. That kind of works against the point of this entire post, but of course Isabella would think Angelo a villain. I’m allowed to see all sides as a reader, but Isabella can only see and process the way things are affecting her personally.
The Duke calls Isabella mad, but then Mariana steps forward and claims that Angelo slept with her. Angelo, who was silent for a bit, finally speaks and acknowledges Mariana. But as things begin to escalate, he begins to panic again. He asks the Duke to allow him to deal with these so-called insane women by himself.
The Duke, who seems really invested in making this as dramatic as possible, exits and re-enters as the Friar. When the Duke is revealed, Angelo is absolutely terrified.
O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes. Then, good prince,
No longer session hold upon my shame,
But let my trial be mine own confession.
Immediate sentence then and sequent death
Is all the grace I beg.
Angelo is prepared to pay for what he’s done – again, it’s because he knows it was wrong. He does have a sense of right and wrong – his actions are what really work against him in this play.
The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana, but then sentences him to death anyway. I will say that Mariana is pretty pleased with the marriage, but not pleased at all with the death sentence. It’s almost like she knows that Angelo isn’t as terrible as he appears – she says that he is the man she desires to marry. Very strange – what does she know that we don’t?
Mariana begs for Angelo’s life – and then she asks Isabella to beg for him as well.
There’s no way Isabella could do this, you think. Absolutely no way. She called Angelo an archvillain, she hates him with ever fiber of her being.
But then she kneels down and begs for his life.
First, I think it’s important to say that Isabella, despite not being perfect, has some very divine qualities to her. She is very passionate and can get carried away, but she is merciful and compassionate. Second, what on earth did Angelo feel, seeing Isabella actually get on her knees and beg for his life? If he didn’t love her before, I’m quite sure he loves her now. I’m sure he’s shocked at how merciful she is – maybe it inspires feelings of wishing that he were that way as well.
But we are at the end of the play, and there is no space for a reconciliation of any kind to happen between Angelo and Isabella. Instead, the Duke begins to pair people off with one another. Angelo will remain married to Mariana, and the Duke himself will marry Isabella.
And Isabella is silent.
Not to be dramatic, but I felt Isabella’s silence in my bones. My heart literally sunk for her – all she wanted was to be a nun. And even that was torn away from her by this Duke that doesn’t even ask for her hand in marriage – he demands it. What does Isabella do while silent? Does she give Claudio a look? One that asks him to think about what his actions have done to her? Or does she look at Angelo questioningly, still desperate to understand everything that’s happened, wondering if he knew that things would end this way?
Isabella is wronged at the end of this play. And although she was wronged by Angelo multiple times, she is wronged by the Duke most of all.
But, because this is technically a comedy, Isabella has to end up with somebody. That’s the Shakespearean rule. If not the Duke, then who?
Well – Angelo.
I know that this is extremely controversial, but hear me out. I think that Angelo met his match when he encountered Isabella, and Isabella found hers in Angelo. They challenge each other as characters, both of them incredibly passionate about what they’ve chosen to dedicate their lives to. And, if staged correctly, if the director is committed to avoiding drawing boxes around the characters, I would even go as far as to say that there is chemistry between them. Even when the topic is unrelated to sex, Isabella and Angelo have conversations that are just electrifying to experience as a reader. And because I think so, I had to put a disclaimer at the top of this post.
Measure for Measure, like Love’s Labor’s Lost, is one of those plays that I wish had a sequel. I find myself worrying for Isabella, because I know that she won’t be happy with the Duke. I know that Angelo won’t be happy with Mariana, even though she’ll be happy with him. And I know that there will always be a strange cloud hanging over these characters as they encounter each other again and again, as they are bound to do.
I always wonder what a good first Shakespeare play would be. Certainly not Hamlet, that much is sure. And although the histories are my favorite, one has to put a lot of effort into reading them. But maybe Measure for Measure is the answer – it’s dramatic, and could lead to hundreds of interesting discussions in the classroom. Its unpopularity is totally undeserved – this play was amazing, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of my favorites that I’ve read this entire year.
Coriolanus is next. The end approaches us!