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Symbolism in Measure for Measure

Mortality and mercy in Vienna

Live in your tongue and heart.
So speaks the Duke to Angelo upon handing over what the Romans would have called
the power of the Lictor, the symbol of the power of life and death, supreme temporal power as
it were in a theocratic state. Thus the Duke triggers the concatenation of events in which we see
the bubbling bedsores of corruption burst, the exercise of power outside justice and the
application of Justice without mercy. Measure for Measure is about power and the principles
that guide it whether they be justice or mercy. By the same token the play delves into forms of
justice; be it the strict application of law scientifically applied or mystically abrogated by
divine mercy. Measure for Measure is rife with symbolism of what it is to rule a society, justly
or in a tyrannical way, in a Draconian manner or in a merciful one. Characters can be identified
with certain aspects of society; here, on one interpretation, the Duke can be held to represent
corruption, Isabella mercy and Angelo corruption.
Analysis might indeed be confined to the exploration of the ideals and beliefs of the
author himself who was akin with other humanists of his time such as Francis Bacon or
Thomas Elyot in his embrace of a new attitude to life and society which allowed a certain
inherent goodness to human existence itself. This Humanism cannot have been ignorant of
the writings of Cicero or Seneca nor the thought of Zenon. Aspects of his play could be held to
reflect in a fascinating manner the extra-Christian philosophies of these thinkers. By the same
measure we cannot ignore the possible influence of James Is presence to whose personal
majesty and political writings Shakespeare is unlikely to have been impervious.
However to analyse the play on the aforementioned level, that is to cut the desiccated
principles of Power, Justice and corruption from the flesh of the play is to reduce it to a bad
puppet show where the sport is in spotting the Elizabethan puppetmaster. What Measure for
Measure tells us about power, corruption and justice does not birth from a dry tome of
jurisprudence, it rather roots the Science of Law amongst the individuals, our kindred whom it
effects. It incarnates the exercise of power; it makes injustice bleed while corruption oozes pus
and mercy gently grants respite. Thus I will begin not by concentrating on the symbols alone
but rather on the application by and the effect on the characters in the play. How can we
discuss punishment as a means of deterrent without hearing Claudios words:
Ay but to die, and to go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
a kneaded clod.
ringing in our ears? Here we can appreciate the human consequences of Angelos strict
application of Vincentios law while Lucio is ever present to riposte the fanciful notions of the
Duke or Escalus with some bawdy aphorism. In Mrs Overdones despair for her business and
the bumbling of Constable Elbow reality interacts with theory to throw an odd light on
Justice. When Isabella pleads with Angelo for mercy her words and images are most eloquent
to her task, most eloquent too to those branches of humanistic thought which ponder who man
is to judge the creation of God, his own kind? Throughout the play the symbolism therein is
given real angst and bite by the vibrancy of the language and the evocation of the human
aspects. Dynamic, energetic evocations of it is to be human grapple with intractable principle
and ideal. So has it always been in the evolution of jurisprudence.
Tillyard , in his analysis of the play maintains that Shakespeare was combining two
strands when writing Measure for Measure but that, rather than mixing them, Reality
predominates in the first half of the play whilst the folktale or the symbolic predominate in
the second. As I have already explained however we will examine the whole play looking at the
folktale in light of reality. Such analysis will base itself on such basic symbols as Power,
Justice or Corruption but also examine aspects of mercy, punishment and the law and its

Thus we begin the story of a ruler who hands his office to a deputy and disappears
leaving a harsh, authoritarian to apply the letter of the law; an authoritarian who later abuses
his position to coerce the sexual favours of the maiden sister of Claudio who lies in prison
sentenced to death under strict and rigid application of the law against fornication! Wherefore
comes such power? How should it be wielded? Has it no stops?
Power and its application by the science of government leap at us from the opening few
lines of the play. The power to rule is made unusually tangible in that the can almost be seen to
divest himself of it and bestow it on Angelo. We are not told anywhere in this play whence
comes this power although it may be presumed that it is derived from God to the Duke. The
Ruler however, in Measure for Measure can be seen to be unusually autonomous in his
possession of power; God is prayed to and even upbraided by Isabella on occasion but nowhere
is the ruler seen as directly answerable to him/her. As granted Angelos power is absolute, of
life and death however significantly, when the Duke transfers it to Angelo he has:
lent him our terror, dressed him with our love
Vital to the exercise of ruling power seems to be to have the awe of the public but also to have
a love for them. It is difficult not to be reminded of Platos golden class of Philosopher-kings
who rules from their inner virtue which the Duke compares to a torch which burns by necessity
not to simply light for itself but also for others. The Duke sees himself and Angelo as benefiting
of a gift of nature to rule. Bounds to this power which the Duke almost objectifies in its
transferral are to be found inherent in the rulers virtue (very different to Machiavellis virtu)
thus mercy is to live with mortality in Angelos heart. Angelo is to rule as the Duke did:
Your scope is as mine own,
So to enforce or qualify the laws
As to your soul seems good
Note here that Angelos power is to qualify as well as enforce the law; his power stands outside
and above the written (the assumption being that as the ruler is one with the law he cannot act
against it)
This brings us to an interesting point. The Power which the Duke sees fit to transfer to
Angelo is the mystical power of medieval of divine provenance. The Duke must have been born
to such a burden and anointed and/or invested with the sacred power. He does not wield justice
but he is justice. He may make law or break law for his people as to his soul seems good. This
power he has transferred to Angelo due to Angelos reputation for ascetic morality and
precision, a man who:
Scance confesses that his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone
Angelo however has only this gravity and morality to guide him, he has never been born a ruler.
Let us ask at this stage why the Duke did not prefer Lord Escalus to be deputy who epitomises
balanced, merciful yet strict government throughout the play. The Duke himself admits that in:
The nature of our people,
Our citys institutions, and the terms
For common justice, yare as pregnant in
As art and practice hath enriched any that we remember
Quite apart from an excellent enunciation of the necessary knowledge and skills to good
rulership the Duke recognises Escaluss worth (although, interestingly, nowhere amongst
Escaluss science does he categorise the divine gift of majesty) and yet he looses Angelo and his
moral outrage upon Venice, full power invested in him without so much of a delineation of
Escaluss function. Is he providing Angelo with a powerless though wise advisor to ignore at
his peril? It is hard to avoid feeling that Angelo is being set up; the science of Escalus will
not be allowed brake the rope with which Angelo is to hang himself. The Duke already knows
the details of Angelos broken betrothal and he goes so far as to state as one of his reasons for
leaving Angelo in power the approbation of whether
If power change purpose, what our seemers be
We witness the Dukes nigh perverse scheming and manipulation of loyalties, hopes and
expectations in his treatment of Isabella, Claudio and Mariana. He plays an almost inhuman
moral taskmaster in a way redolent of the pagan deities of ancient civilisation. However one
cannot help suspecting that there is more to his appointment of Angelo than an abstract

experiment in the effects of power on morality. Perhaps the pioneer machinator of state
affairs can illuminate the Dukes designs.
Machiavelli points out in the Prince that although a man who comes to rule a
kingdom from outside may be a tyrant and not suffer the rebellion of his subjects a ruler born
within the kingdom does not wield sufficient terror to subdue the people to his absolute will.
The Duke himself admitted to Friar Thomas:
Sith twas my fault to give the people scope,
Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do.
The Duke has indeed list his Terror which he professes to lend to Angelo; one needs but
glance through the scenes of Lucio to find what the profane perception of him is: Lucio speaks
thus of the Duke and his attitude to fornication:
He had some feeling of the sport; he knew the service
And that instructed him to mercy.
The Duke has spent his terror - the lion has roared himself hoarse and now cannot swallow. We
hear the frustration of a benevolent ruler of an immoral public in the words:
In time the rod becomes more mocked than feard:
So our decrees dead to infliction, to themselves are dead.
May we perhaps then believably view the Dukes intentions as being to borrow a
Dracon from outside to invigorate the terror of the law? This however rings somewhat false
in view of the conclusions he must have drawn from previous knowledge of Angelos character
and the very views he has of authority and rulership, justice and mercy which he expresses later
Perhaps, delving once more into Machiavelli, the Duke even more pragmatically seeks to
do as the Duke of Borgia does to one of his ministers. He allows his minister to abuse his
power in a most tyrannical manner over his subjects until when, choosing the right moment, the
Duke himself appears vested in the mantle of the true ruler and orders the minister to be done
to death, cut in two and his cadaver displayed in public. Such action was lauded as a
superlative manner of winning the support and loyalty of ones subjects; perhaps the Duke
might be trying to effect similar results in killing two birds with one stone, restoring the terror
of law, renewing the potency of his rulership by moral force and regaining the respect and
appreciation of his people through his salvation of them from the tyrant. In the tradition of
David, did he send his captain to fight with flawed cannon?
This is indeed possible but there remains to us a final twist why the power might have
been transferred. To unfold this possibility however, it is necessary to examine closer how
Angelo will wield his power; what concepts of justice he uses to inform its use and also the
corruption against which he is pitted.
The conventional medieval conception of society of the time was of something inherently
infernal. Harshness of laws are justified by the primary evil innate in human existence. Any
suffering undergone is seen as richly deserved. The rulership of man by man is seen by a
variety of Christian thinkers from St Augustine to Ambrose and beyond as a necessary evil.
This rulership within society is seen as having the goal of bringing as much of the Civitas
Dei into the Civitas Terrena as possible. Plato conceived the same goal for society; society
being in Platos thought to aid the citizen in his search for the ultimate truth. In the same way
the Duke (and Angelo) strive to repress vice and promote virtue. The Dukes motivation in this
regard seems to be somewhat more esoteric than those justifications advanced by Angelo who is
more utilitarian in his perception of law as a necessity to safeguard others; speaking of mercy
he claims:
I show it most of all, when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know ,
Which a dismissed offence would after gall.
The striking distinction one may divine between Angelo and the Duke however in the
exercise of power is in their attitude to law. The Duke is the Law; he is the word of law
incarnate. He carries the law in his heart and on his tongue, there is no science to his
pronouncements, there is simply him. He might see himself as the mystical Lawgiver, the

Lycurgus of Vienna. Hence the Dukes insistence on the co-ordination of ruler with
pronouncement and judgement; the two are co-ordinate as they are one:
He doth with holy abstinence subdue that in himself
Which he spurs on his power to qualify in others;
Were he mealed with that which he corrects
Then were he tyrannous
For the Dukes power is braked by his innate sense of justice and his harsh justice is tempered
by divine mercy.
Angelo on the other hand does not internalise the law to wield it as he would himself but
rather he executes the law laid down by the Duke (and harsh laws they were too by all accounts
if the punishment for sex outside marriage was death). Divested of human compassion by
moral dishonesty and emotional sterility he applies the law to the letter ignorant of any mercy.
The reaction of the public show that such law is alien to what they hold as morally
reprehensible or identify as justice. Claudios words express well the lot of the little victims of
the law:
Thus can the demiGod, Authority
Make us pay down for our offence by weight - the words of heaven,
On whom it will, it will, and on whom it will not,
So yet still is it just.
Angelo pursues a strict application of his Lords law; he heeds not Isabellas suggested test
whereupon if finding a natural guiltiness in his heart consonant with that which he condemns
he may not condemn that guilt. He is the angel of justice; a harsh immutable justice so severe
that Escalus is prompted to call him Justice with a frisson of human horror at the inhuman.
However a view of Angelos use of his power is incomplete without exploring his concept of
justice, the corruption it seeks to extirpate and the riposte to that justice which the same
corruption bred.
Vienna is rife with corruption, in this case mostly sexual. The play seethes with imagery
of the corrupt as Shakespeare shows us gentlemen bartering bawdy banter in the street whilst
the local bawd is well known to all and even to the Duke are imputed the most lecherous of
practices. Shakespeare is an expert in depicting the corrupt state, rotten and disintegrating from
within. Angelos lecherous lust for Isabella only brings this corruption to a point although in
this case our particular disapproval is reserved for such hypocrisy in the head of state and such
manifest abuse of power. However such corruption is not depicted as in some medieval
morality play where the villain is inhumanely evil and corruption is base and degrading.
Shakespeare gives to Angelo an epiphany of human frailty which earns him our sympathy and
the even the iniquity of Viennese society has a peculiar aspect. Let us examine merely the
scapegoat of Angelos corrective measures; Claudio and Juliet. It is they who are singled out,
not Pompey nor Mistress Overdone who are both notorious bawds nor Lucio and the other
gentlemen, outspoken fornicators all. It is rather Claudio and Juliet who, for a mere monetary
quibble would be married, are to suffer. We are given an illuminating glimpse of the absolute
nature of what a transgression of the law in the medieval period was , notwithstanding
circumstances, in the stigma attached to Judiths pregnancy. However the shame felt by Judith
is paralleled by a fascinating development symptomatic of the dynamisation of the lay classes
in the Renaissance. In contrast to a crime being that act contravening the letter of the law
certain elements of society see Claudios and Juliets misfortune as cause for rejoicing. Lucio
allows no hint of condemnation in the lines:
As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time
That from the seedness the bare fallow brings
To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb
Expresseth his full tilth and husbandary
such conduct for which Lucio declares to Isabella
If myself might be his judge,
He should receive his punishment in thanks
He hath got his friend with child.

Lucio is supported by general opinion that although Claudio and Juliet have committed a
wrong, it is not one deserving of punishment. Thus the Provost accepts that Claudio has
indulged in vice but regards his offence as but in a dream:
All sects, all ages smacking of this vice
Even so Pompey might dispute with Escalus and the Duke the immorality of his trade in
comparison with usury for instance. All this seems to signify a new perception of what is a
wrong and most particularly its punishment, of the laity beginning to equip itself with an
appreciation of morality and moral value. In my opinion it is the stirrings of the humanism
which surfaces in Isabellas pleas for mercy. This new-born humanism has not yet the strength
to allow justification of impugned conduct however it will allow the generality of a wrong to be
recognised whilst as the same time admitting the beauty and joy of human existence. Is this
perhaps the newness, the immorality which the Duke so fears in his state?
It is easy to ignore in Measure for Measure that there is no real difference in what the
Duke condemns as a wrong and what Angelo condemns as such. Indeed it is no wonder for
Angelo merely implements the statutes of the Duke. Even in the operation of Justice the Duke
shows himself quite bloodyminded in his advocating that where there is a wrong and a
punishment fitted, then that punishment should be fulfilled. The Duke shows his mind
throughout the play in the person of the monk. He admonishes Judith for her wrongdoing and
informs her of Claudios fate.( He shows no inclination to save Claudio until the corruption of
Angelo becomes evident) Having delayed Barnardines execution for so many years he is quite
prepared to encourage his sudden execution though Barnardine is drunk and unshriven. The
Duke believes in absolute Justice. His philosophy as expressed to Claudio when preparing him
for death manifests a contempt for life of which any early Christian would be proud. However
in his view, justice cannot be done by Angelo for:
He who the sword of heaven shall bear,
Should be as holy as severe
Angelo however, rather than enshrouding himself in the cloak of the Ruler chooses to be
the implementor of the law. For him justice is the absolute implementation of the law however
in his denial of the mystique of the Ruler he has also rejected the divine grace of mercy- that
illogical reflection of fate in life which would set Barrabas free and crucify Jesus. Angelo
justifies his rigorous enforcement of the law in a number of ways enlightening to the action of
law in society. He pronounces to Escalus and others:
We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror
His is a completely pragmatic policy on this level and he highlights here the very faults of the
administration of the Duke; over-lenience which fault he himself shall not commit. It cannot be
contended however that the bloody-mindedness of his intention to pursue the execution of the
law to its last twist is motivated by purely pragmatic and utilitarian considerations; he is
goaded on by his perceived moral sanctity to even compare sex outside wedlock with murder!
Escalus does not share his naivet and foreshadows Angelos fall from dubious grace in his
entreaty for empathy with Claudios plight and for mercy by suggesting that Angelo might
imagine how he might feel in Claudios position.
This theme is continued by Isabella who emphasises humankinds common heritage of
iniquity. However Angelo is proof to such reasoning; in this way he could be said to be the
complete positivist. He acknowledges his possible fall from grace with the rest of humanity
however it is the fact that the law has been transgressed and that justice been given its
opportunity to swoop which matters, not the guiltlessness of the hand that guides it. In the acrid
moral world of Angelo the law is there to delineate between right and wrong and Justice to
condemn and strike down whosoever might transgress that law by whatever means possible.
Hence he says to Escalus:
Whats open to justice, that justice seizes.
What knows the laws that thieves do pass on thieves?
he even sees his own demise in this idealised order:
When I, that censure him, do so offend, let mine own judgement

Pattern out my death, and nothing come in partial.

The irony is of course that in a typically Shakespearean way, those fanciful words are to
culminate in the not too distant future, in just such a manner. One should note however, at this
stage, that Escalus, who symbolises in many ways wise statecraft and sage jurisprudence
agrees with Angelos policy of enforcement:
Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so,
Pardon is still the nurse of second woe
however much he may in humanity plea for mercy in Claudios case.
Thus we see Angelos views on the implementation of the law to be immutable and
without compassion whether those laws be the those of the Duke or those preached by the
church. Let us call this the justice of the law, the law being that shining axe revered by Angelo
which cleaves the wicked from the guilty whom Angelo must punish so that the good may be
saved. It is also the justice of the Duke who appears to believe that in human fallibility all lives
are forfeit anyway, the law merely serving to elect those to pay in this life. However the merit
of this law is constantly being attacked by the lesser characters in the play; from the so-called
corruption there arise challenges to the efficacy of the of the law in striking down the
wicked. Elbows confusion of language is an affliction unfortunate for an officer of the law
and illuminatory as to how subjective the worth of the law might be said to be.
This justice of the Duke and Angelo may be counterpointed by that appearing in
Isabellas plea to Angelo, the Justice of Life. Isabella is a pious young woman but proud in
her piety as Angelo in his morality. On learning of Claudios crime she abhors it with equal
vigour to Angelos but she is driven by ties of the flesh to plea for his life. Whilst so pleading
she is goaded by the situation in an electric scene outside her cloistered life and philosophy to a
recognition of the ubiquity of human fallibility. She sees that all humankind are sinners and
asks; who is to throw the first stone? What mortal shall judge? Her words and imagery are
Why all souls that were forfeit once
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy
Her poignant image:

even for our kitchens

We kill the fowl of season. Shall we serve heaven
With less respect than we do minister
our own gross selves?
belies the good in the killing of any man by human authority in the name of justice. Isabella
pleads for mercy:
No ceremony that to great ones longs..........
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
However what Isabella does in many ways is to deny the right of any man to order the
taking of the life of another in the name of Justice when a natural guiltiness must reside in
the arm of justice itself. All punishment she restricts to God thus temporal mercy is extended to
all. In this way she will forgive Angelo for, in Marianas words:
They say the best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad.
Isabellas mercy is complete, Angelos non-existent. However in an ironical way they
complement each other. Isabellas attitude could be taken to nigh forbid human society any
instrument of self-regulation whilst Angelos philosophy in its emphasis on the protection of
society and stripped of its moral overtones is the plainsong of utilitarian, guiltless social
The theme of mercy finally returns us to the Duke. The problem in the Dukes form of
government would seem to have been, as we have seen, an over-abundance of mercy. Instead of
fearing his law and starting before it the Dukes polity did indeed perch on the his legislation
as in Angelos imagery and, to take his imagery in a grosser direction they shat (or shitted) on
the scarecrows head. All those vices tolerated during the Dukes rule are attributed to be his

own. One can understand the Dukes consternation upon meeting Lucio and learning of his
public image. The Duke yet sees himself as the physical embodiment of justice in a world
where all are condemned but where divine mercy sees fit to allow most to live. Isabella catches
this idea in her words:
Merciful heaven, Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak,
Than the soft myrtle.
However the Duke lives in a world of changing morality where the young sun of the
Renaissance is burning off the hazy mists of the Middle Ages. His polity yet feel the wrongness
of fornication in the abstract sense but no longer feel the moral revulsion to sanction its
punishment. They savour the taste of humanity and find it good. Their new sense is not yet
strong enough to question yet they will not condemn. The Duke is considered an ally in this
conspiracy to rob cruel Justice of her fodder.
Isabella expresses some aspects of this new movement, Lucio and Claudio do others.
Angelo foreshadows the politician who is not heaven sent but rather chosen for his perceived
moral worth and goodness to enforce the laws of another. At this stage perhaps an explanation
for the Dukes choice of deputy presents itself - perhaps the whole affair was a ruse of the
Dukes to confront that newness rumbling on the horizon. Does he seek to silence the stirrings
in his polity and repair the breaches in the loyalty to his lofty authority through it? Is it a
stroke to at once restore the terror of his law and sink his people once more in ignorant
repentance of their humanity? Angelo is given the sceptre of authority; he, by all powers of
human perception is most fit to rule. He proves severe, he is not gifted of divine mercy and then
he proves a tyrant; the people suffer where they never have before. Behind the scenes the Duke
plots and schemes. He inveigles Mariana into fornication, the provost into disobeying his
commands and even the pious and virtuous Isabella into trickery without mentioning Angelo.
By the end of the play all are enwrapped in his sticky conspiracy and all are corrupt. It is only
when the Duke returns and in his mercy abrogates all guilt that life can return to normality. The
victory is that of the pre-humanist divinely appointed ruler. His sinners, his subjects rest easy in
his mercy and yet in diffidatio by their sins to him. For how long, one might ask?