In this play, written in 1604, Shakespeare takes the opportunity to study the relationship of justice and mercy. He had done so in The Merchant of Venice, but there he had not been consistent. Portia had demanded mercy of Shylock, but when the tables were turned she did not show it (see page I-539).
We all favor mercy for those with whom we sympathize, but are not nearly as keen when mercy is sought for those we hate. In this play Shakespeare carries through the notion of mercy to ultimate consistency, and in offering mercy to the villain makes many critics unhappy. In presenting an unpleasant situation so that the offering of mercy becomes hard indeed, more critics are made unhappy. The result is that Shakespeare's great play of mercy is usually considered one of his unpleasant comedies, like All's Well That Ends Well.
.. any in Vienna…
The setting of the play is in Austria. This setting Shakespeare takes over from a tale by Cynthius; a tale from the same collection, in fact, from which he had a year earlier or less taken the plot for Othello (see page I-609).
Cynthius' tale begins with the Emperor Maximian appointing a new judge over the city of Innsbruck. There was a real Emperor Maximian who ruled over the Roman Empire, along with Diocletian, from 286 to 305, but there is no indication that the play takes place in Roman tunes.
The name may have been inspired to Cynthius by the fact that two Holy Roman emperors named Maximilian ruled in the sixteenth century. The first, Maximilian I, ruled from 1493 to 1519, and the second, Maximilian II, became Emperor in 1564. He was on the throne when Cynthius' collection was published in 1565.
The two Maximilians, like all the emperors after 1438, were members of the House of Habsburg, who ruled, specifically, as archdukes of Austria.
Shakespeare shifts the scene from Innsbruck, a provincial town in western Austria, to Vienna, the capital, but he is writing a Renaissance romance, and all the characters have Italian names. Thus, the Archduke of Austria and presumably Holy Roman Emperor (but referred to only as "Duke" in the play) is Vincentio.
The Duke is planning to retire for a while from the tasks of government and intends to appoint a deputy to wield his powers. He suggests his candidate to an aged lord, Escalus, who approves and says:
// any in Vienna be of worth
To undergo such ample grace and honor
It is Lord Angela.
– Act I, scene i, lines 22-24
Angela is given the post, though he is reluctant, and the Duke then leaves in great haste.
… the King of Hungary …
The scene then shifts to a Viennese street, where we are introduced to Lucio, who is listed in the cast of characters as "a fantastic." He is fantastic in costume and conversation, in other words; he is avant-garde, ahead of the fashion, a gay man about town.
He is talking to two unnamed Gentlemen and says:
// the Duke, with the other dukes,
come not to composition with the King of Hungary,
why then all the dukes fall upon the King.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 1-3
Nothing further is mentioned of this, of any threat of war, of the King of Hungary; nor is there any hint as to who "the other dukes" might be.
Hungary is Austria's eastern neighbor. Through the Middle Ages it was an extensive and often powerful kingdom which was, however, weakened by the existence of a turbulent aristocracy whose quarrels among themselves worked to the ruin of all.
Hungary had reached its height a little over a century before Measure for Measure was written, when, from 1458 to 1490, Mathias Corvinus ruled. He temporarily broke the power of the Hungarian nobility, spread his power northward over Slovakia and Silesia, and in 1485 even conquered Vienna. He made Vienna his capital and ruled over Austria.
Corvinus died in 1490 and his weak successor gave up the earlier conquests and let the nobility gradually regain their power. The real disaster, however, came in 1526, when the Ottoman Turks (see page I-520) invaded Hungary and destroyed the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs. By 1540 the major part of Hungary had been made part of the Ottoman Empire and the western fringe was taken over by the Austrian Duke, Ferdinand I.
… nineteen zodiacs…
The talk shifts almost at once to internal affairs. It seems that a wave of puritanism is sweeping over Vienna and a moral crackdown is in process. Older laws against sexual immorality, which had been allowed to lapse, are now being drawn noose-tight and houses of prostitution in the suburbs are being closed down.
What's more, a young nobleman, Claudio, is being haled off to prison for moral offenses. He is engaged to Juliet, but the marriage had been delayed while the matter of a dowry was being negotiated and meanwhile Juliet has managed to get pregnant.
The Duke's deputy, Angelo, a man of rigid and unassailable virtue (his very name means "angel"), is applying the law against unmarried intercourse to the extreme and Claudio will be slated for execution.
Claudio, in this deep trouble, stops to talk to his friend Lucio and complains of being thus struck down by penalties:
Which have, like unscoured armor, hung by th'wall
So long, that nineteen zodiacs have gone round
And none of them been worn…
– Act I, scene ii, lines 168-74
The sun travels once around the zodiac in one year. Nineteen zodiacs are therefore nineteen years.
Lucio advises Claudio to appeal to the Duke, but the Duke is not to be found. Claudio therefore asks Lucio to hasten to a nunnery where his (Claudio's) sister is about to take her vows. Perhaps she will plead with Angelo on his behalf and win him over.
… to Poland
But the Duke has not really left after all. He wishes to observe affairs while remaining unobserved, see how the moral reform will work out, and so on. The Duke explains this to a monk, Friar Thomas, saying that even Angelo, his deputy, doesn't know the truth:
… he supposes me traveled to Poland;
For so I have strewed it in the common ear,
– Act I, scene iii, lines 13-15
In Shakespeare's time Poland was much larger than it is today. It bordered on Austria (and what had once been Hungary) to the northeast, and included large sections of what is now the Soviet Union. It extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea and was almost at the peak of its territorial expansion. But the aristocracy in Poland, as in Hungary, was uncontrollable and kept the central government weak.
Lucio reaches Isabella (Claudio's sister) at the nunnery. She has not yet made her final vows and she may speak to him. He tells her of Claudio's situation. Claudio cannot make amends by marrying the girl he has made pregnant because Angelo is intent on setting an example. Lucio has no great hopes that Angelo can be swerved from this, for the man is icily virtuous. Lucio describes Angelo as
a man whose blood
Is very snow-broth…
– Act I, scene iv, lines 57-59
The implication is that he cannot feel the stirrings of passion and cannot sympathize with those who do. Under the lash of virtue he would insist upon a rigid justice that would be as cruel as anything vice would demand.
Yet, as a last resort, Lucio urges Isabella to go to Angelo and plead with him. He might be softened by a girl's request.
The chances of success are sum, however, for in the next scene Angelo is shown in conversation with Escalus and he insists on the letter of the law firmly. Strict justice and nothing but justice is what he demands, and he gives orders that Claudio be executed the next morning at 9 a.m.
… at Hallowmas. ..
The gravity of the developing situation with respect to Claudio is lightened by a scene in which a comic constable, Elbow, has arrested Pompey, who works as servant in a brothel, and Froth, who has been a customer there. Both are brought before Angelo and Escalus for judgment.
When Pompey begins to testify, however, he does so with a long-windedness that weaves round and round the point without ever coming to it. It drags in even the exact time of the death of Froth's father. Pompey says:
Was't not at Hallowmas, Master Froth?
– Act II, scene i, lines 123-24
Froth answers with grave precision:
– Act II, scene i, line 125
"Hallowmas," which is also "All Hallows' Day," is a day set aside for the celebration of all the saints generally, known and unknown, and it is also known as "All Saints' Day." The celebration is on November 1, which happens, by no great coincidence, to be an important pastoral holiday of the ancient Celts. Many of the ancient customs of the earlier pagan holiday have come down to us, transfigured by Christian disapproval, and have given us a melange of witches and hobgoblins.
The night, naturally, is the best time for the spirits of darkness, and since in ancient times (among the Jews, for instance) the twenty-four-hour day included the sunlit period plus the night before, rather than the night after, it was the night of October 31 that was witch time. This is the "All-hallond Eve" that Froth refers to, or "All Hallows' Eve" or "All Saints' Eve," or, as it is best known today, Halloween.
… a night in Russia
Angelo, whose virtue leaves him no room for humor, leaves in disgust, allowing Escalus to render judgment, and saying:
This will last out a night in Russia,
When nights are longest there.
– Act II, scene i, lines 133-34
In Shakespeare's time Russia was just impinging on west European consciousness (see page I-154). At that time Russian territory had already reached the Arctic Ocean, and in 1553 an English trade mission under Richard Chancellor reached that nation through the one port that was open to the sea powers of the West-Archangel, on the Arctic shore.
It was this which gave England the notion of Russia as an essentially Arctic nation; a notion that was never quite wiped out of European consciousness. There were parts of Russia that were farther south than any part of England, even in the sixteenth century, before still further expansion southward had taken place. What counted, though, was the latitude of Archangel, which is only a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. "When nights are longest there" (in December and January) they are over twenty-three-hours long-though much of that time is twilit
… a shrewd Caesar …
The mild Escalus, left to deal with Pompey and Froth, lets them go but warns them nut to be picked up again, for he does not wish to see them before him once more. He says to Pompey:
// / do, Pompey,
I shall beat you to your tent,
and prove a shrewd Caesar to you;
– Act II, scene i, lines 247-49
The reference is, of course, to the Roman general Pompey and his defeat by Julius Caesar (see page I-257).
As mercy does
Claudio's moment of execution is approaching, and now his sister, Isabella, comes to plead for his life. Yet she is as strictly virtuous as Angelo and has no great sympathy for her brother's sexual offense. She says (very Angelo-like):
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice,
– Act II, scene ii, lines 29-30
Naturally, her cold plea doesn't touch Angelo and she is at once ready to give up. Lucio, however (who is the pattern of goodhearted vice throughout the play and makes a good contrast to the two examples of marble-hearted virtue), urges her to plead more passionately.
Fired at last, Isabella turns to the only legitimate pleas that can turn aside justice:
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 one half so good a grace
As mercy does.
– Act II, scene ii, lines 59-63
Thus is the conflict of the play set forth clearly: justice versus mercy.
And as Isabella grows more eloquent, Angelo begins to thaw-but not out of mercy. He is attracted not so much by the reasoning as by the reasoner. He asks Isabella to return the next morning, and when he is left alone, he discovers to his surprise that he too has finally felt the stirrings of passion.
… but to die…
At the second meeting between Isabella and Angelo, Angelo is ready to offer the mercy that Isabella has begged, but only at the price of Isabella herself. It is now Isabella's turn to be unbendingly virtuous. She refuses the price even if that means her brother must die, doing so without hesitation, and marches off to inform her brother of that fact.
Claudio is horrified at the news Isabella brings him and, at first impulse, agrees that it is better for himself to die than for his sister to lose her virtue. But then he begins to think about death and he quails, saying:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling-'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
– Act III, scene i, lines 118-32
This sounds a great deal like the various descriptions of the sufferings of the damned in hell in Dante's Divine Comedy.
So Claudio asks his sister to sacrifice her virtue for him. We might expect from Isabella the mercy she had requested so movingly of Angelo. She might not give in to Claudio, but she might at least sympathize with his fear of death and forgive him his human weakness. She does not. As rigid and extreme as Angelo (before lust intervened), Isabella shrieks out at her brother:
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed.
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee.
– Act III, scene i, lines 144-47
… Mariana, the sister of Frederick…
But the Duke, disguised as a friar, has overheard the colloquy between brother and sister in the jail, and now he begins to take countermeasures. He insists on speaking to Isabella before she leaves and says to her:
Have you not heard speak of Mariana,
the sister of Frederick,
the great soldier who miscarried at sea?
– Act III, scene i, lines 212-14
There is no indication that this reference to Frederick implies any real person. We might point out, though, that there were a number of Fredericks involved in German and Austrian history. One of them, Frederick I Barbarossa, was Holy Roman Emperor from 1152 to 1190 and he was indeed a great warrior, the strongest of the medieval emperors. In his old age, when almost seventy, he joined the Third Crusade (the one in which Richard the Lion-Heart was involved, see page II-219) and in Asia Minor drowned in a river while bathing. This is close to having "miscarried at sea."
It turns out that this Mariana had been betrothed to Angelo, but when her brother was wrecked at sea, her dowry was lost and Angelo promptly and coldly broke the marriage contract (about par for his kind of virtue).
The Duke now proposes the exact device used by Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, which Shakespeare had written a year or two earlier. Isabella is to pretend to accede to Angelo and to insist that he stay with her only briefly and in silence. It will then be arranged to have Mariana substitute for Isabella. Angelo will pardon Claudio as payment, then be forced to marry Mariana when the truth is revealed.
… Pygmalion's images …
Pompey now comes onstage again. Once more he is arrested on the old charge of running a house of prostitution and this time there will be no mercy. When Lucio enters, Pompey recognizes an old customer and friend and asks for him to intercede. Lucio, however, is quite heartless and makes a mere joke of it, saying:
How now, noble Pompey!
What, at the wheels of Caesar?
Art thou led in triumph?
What, is there none of Pygmalion's images,
newly made woman, to be had now,
for putting the hand in the pocket and extracting it clutched?
– Act III, scene ii, lines 44-48
Again there is the reference to Pompey and Caesar that, earlier, Escalus had used. Of course, Pompey was never led in triumph behind Caesar's chariot, for he died before that could be. And even if he had not died, it was not the custom of Roman generals to be awarded a triumph for their victories over other Roman generals. The metaphor is colorful, but inaccurate.
Pygmalion is a mythical character, whose story is told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. He was a King of Cyprus who had carved a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it. He prayed to Aphrodite to give him a wife resembling the statue and she did better. She had the statue come to life, and Pygmalion did indeed marry her.
Lucio's reference to "newly made woman" plays on words bawdily, referring both to Pygmalion's come-to-life statue and to prostitutes who have just completed a turn. In the latter sense, they would have money that Pompey could make use of in order to bribe his way to freedom.
… the Emperor of Russia
The Duke/Friar is also onstage and Lucio lingers to talk to him, not recognizing him as Duke, of course. Lucio quotes some rumors, saying of the Duke:
Some say he is with the Emperor of Russia,
– Act III, scene ii, line 89
In 1472 Ivan III, till then Grand Duke of Muscovy, married Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. Ivan thereupon claimed the throne of the Empire (now defunct, actually) for himself and assumed the title of Tsar ("Caesar"). In Western Europe this title was translated into "Emperor," and Russia remained under a tsar-emperor for nearly four and a half centuries.
Lucio, out of sheer high spirits and a mischievous desire to shock a holy man, goes on to repeat all sorts of slanders against the Duke. When the Friar makes plain his indignation over this, Lucio increases his slanders, accusing the Duke of unbridled lust, drunkenness, and ignorance.
… come Philip and Jacob…
Lucio goes off laughing, but he has tried to be funny at a very unfortunate time for himself. Mistress Overdone, the proprietress of a bawdy-house, is also being arrested, and she believes it was Lucio who bore witness against her. She therefore accuses Lucio, in turn, to Escalus. It seems that he has had a child by one of the prostitutes of her house. She says:
Mistress Kate Keepdown was with child by him
in the Duke's time; he promised her marriage;
his child is a year and a quar ter old,
come Philip and Jacob; I have kept it myself…
– Act III, scene ii, lines 202-5
St. Philip and St. James, two of the apostles, are together commemorated on May 1. The Hebrew name of James is Jacob. "Come Philip and Jacob" therefore means "next May 1."
A Bohemian born …
The plot to deceive Angelo is completed. Mariana is introduced; it is explained to her what she must do and she agrees.
But Angelo, once he has slept with Mariana (thinking she was Isabella), fears the discovery of the sin. If he pardons Claudio, everyone will be astonished and ready to believe something unusual has happened. If Isabella talks, her tale would be accepted. If, however, Claudio is executed, who would then believe Isabella's story?
Therefore, even as the Duke/Friar waits for notice of Claudio's reprieve, a letter to the Provost (the keeper of the prison) arrives from Angelo, ordering the execution of Claudio and, in addition, of someone named Barnardine.
The Duke/Friar asks who Barnardine is and the Provost replies:
A Bohemian born,
but here nursed up and bred;
– Act IV, scene ii, lines 133-34
Bohemia (now part of modern Czechoslovakia) is the westernmost Slavic region of Europe. The fourteenth century was its golden age and its King, Charles I, was Holy Roman Emperor from 1347 to 1378. Bohemia declined after that, chiefly through internal religious strife.
After 1462 Bohemia was ruled by Hungary, and when the latter country was defeated by the Turks, Bohemia was taken over by the Austrian House of Habsburg. Bohemia remained Austrian through Shakespeare's life and for three centuries afterward.
… pluck out his eyes
Barnardine, it seems, has been in prison for nine years for murder and now, all reprieves having been exhausted and his crime thoroughly proved, is ready for death. The Duke/Friar considers having his head sent to Angelo in place of Claudio's. It turns out, though, that a prisoner has died that morning of fever and he happens to resemble Claudio. It is that head which will be sent to Angelo, and Barnardine as well as Claudio will remain unexecuted.
Yet when Isabella comes to receive her reprieved brother, the Duke/ Friar tells her that her brother has been executed. Her instant cry is for revenge as she shrieks:
O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!
– Act IV, scene iii, line 121
Some critics are appalled at the Duke's needless cruelty in hiding from Isabella the fact that her brother has been saved. The Duke's action seems reasonable to me, however. He was present when Isabella cruelly turned on her death-fearing brother and excoriated him, saying she would pray for his death. Well, now she had what she prayed for. That might teach her a little something about justice and mercy and she would later have an opportunity to learn a little more. (Besides, one is entitled to wonder whether she is more outraged at the death of her brother or at the fact that her sacrificed virtue-which Angelo thought he had-was so little valued by him.)
"… death for death"
Now begins a charade arranged by the Duke. He returns to Vienna in his own guise and is so greeted. Isabella (following the instructions of the Friar, not knowing him to be the Duke) accuses Angelo of having insisted on her body as the price of her brother and then having had the brother executed anyway. Angelo denies everything and the Duke affects to believe him and orders Isabella punished.
Mariana joins in the accusation against Angelo and the whole story comes out, but still Angelo denies and still the Duke refuses to accept the accusation.
It turns out that a Friar has urged the women to make the accusation and the question turns to him. Lucio, out of sheer love of mischief, accuses the Friar of having slandered the Duke, putting his own words into the Friar's mouth.
The Duke retires, returns as Friar, and he too is ordered arrested. Lucio abuses him quite gratuitously and pulls off the Friar's hood. All freeze in astonishment as the Duke's face is revealed.
And now the Duke speaks in earnest for the first time since his return. It is his task to represent mercy and his first words are to pardon Escalus the harsh words he addressed to the Friar, not knowing that behind the cowl was the Duke.
Angelo has no choice now but to confess his guilt and ask for death. The Duke, however, is in no hurry for that. First there is a kind justice (not a cruel one) to be done Mariana. She must be given the social status that goes with marriage. Angelo and Mariana are therefore taken offstage to be married.
Isabella asks forgiveness for having, unknowingly, treated the Duke as less than a Duke and she receives pardon freely.
And then Angelo, returning as a married man, must hear sentence passed against him. The Duke offers him his own kind of justice and suggests that mercy itself would demand merciless justice, and would cry out:
"An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!"
Haste still [always] pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
– Act V, scene i, lines 412-14
It is the cry of rigid return of damage for damage and is usually recognized as among the primitive ethics of early religious development. It reminds one of the passage in the Old Testament which says: "And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Leviticus 24:19-20). In a way, of course, this was an attempt at limitation of revenge. If one man knocked out another's tooth, revenge must not take the form of killing, but satisfy itself with no more than knocking out a tooth in return. Nevertheless, the doctrine of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" sounds barbaric to those who make no such fetish of exact justice.
It is usually thought that the Old Testament doctrine quoted above was repudiated by the New Testament, for Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil" (Matthew 5:38-39).
But then later in the same sermon, Jesus says: "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7:1-2).
This latter passage may refer to divine judgment, but it can be applied to human judgments; and whether divine or human, it is eye for eye and tooth for tooth all over again.
It is the New Testament passage which the play counters, for it is the New Testament passage that gives the play its title.
Let Mm not die
Mariana pleads for Angelo's life, but he is her husband and she loves him. It is easy for her to want mercy for the man. What about Isabella?
To Isabella, Angelo is nothing but a villain. He tried to rob her of both her virginity and her brother, and as far as she knows, the brother is indeed lost. She has no reason to want mercy, every reason to want revenge. Mariana pleads with her and slowly Isabella kneels. She says to the Duke:
/ partly think
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Till he did look on me.
Since it is so, Let him not die,
– Act V, scene i, lines 448-51
That is why it was necessary for the Duke not to reveal to Isabella that her brother lived. She had to forgive Angelo at the worst. She had to learn mercy at last.
Angelo is therefore pardoned and for this many critics (as savage as Angelo) condemn the play, because they want to see the man hanged. Yet is it only for those with whom we sympathize that mercy is to be sought? If that is so, then what credit is there in mercy and why should we have expected Shylock to show mercy for an Antonio with whom he did not sympathize, or for Angelo to show mercy for a Claudio with whom he did not sympathize? It is precisely to those whom we hate that we must show mercy if the word is to have meaning at all.
Thy slanders I forgive …
But the Duke has one more person to teach-himself. After pardons are granted all round, even to the wicked murderer, Barnardine, the Duke finds there is one person he cannot pardon-the one who has sinned directly against himself. This is Lucio, who has slandered him.
The Duke orders Lucio to marry the prostitute on whom he has fathered a child and, afterward, to be whipped and hanged.
Lucio seems to be more dismayed at the disgrace of the marriage than at the rest and manages to be witty even at this last moment. Whereupon the Duke, with an effort, manages to be merciful on his own account too. He says:
Upon mine honor, thou shalt marry her.
Thy slanders I forgive; and therewithal
Remit thy other forfeits.
– Act V, scene i, lines 521-23
Then, in his last speech, the Duke indicates pretty clearly that he intends to marry Isabella, and thus ends the play.