Measure for Measure Contents
- Shakespeare, William
- 1564 - 1582: William Shakespeare's Stratford Beginnings
- 1582 - 1592: William Shakespeare's Marriage, Parenthood and Early Occupation
- 1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 2
- 1594 - 1611: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 3
- 1611 - 1616: William Shakespeare - Back to Stratford
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- The Theatre
- Act I
- Act II
- Act III
- Act IV
- Act V
The Angelo whom the audience sees at the end of Measure for Measure is very different from the man whom they encounter at the start. Not only does Angelo learn that he is fallible, but the audience is given new information about him during the course of the play.
Angelo at the beginning
At the start of the play Angelo is presented as having almost super-human virtue:
- His very name suggests this, linking him with angels, the messengers of God, who are above human beings in the order of creation. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity)
- He is described as ‘a man of stricture and firm abstinence' (Act I sc iii):
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense' (Act I sc iv)
- Escalus, a councillor (and counsellor) whose opinion we come to trust, declares (Act I sc i) that:
‘If any in Vienna be of worth / To undergo such ample grace and honour as to be left in charge, ‘It is Lord Angelo.'
- It seems that Angelo has no guilty secrets, an idea reinforced by the Duke's remarks on Angelo's clear reputation:
That to th'observer doth thy history
Fully unfold (Act I sc i)
Early hints that there may be another side to Angelo
In the early scenes of the play there are a few indications that Angelo may not be all he seems:
- Angelo himself suggests that the Duke may be placing too much trust in him:
Let there be some more test made of my metal,
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamp'd upon it. (Act I sc i)
This could, of course, be taken as modesty, thereby adding to our sense of Angelo's good qualities.
- In Act I sc ii, Claudio suggests that Angelo is enjoying power, and that he is also proudly establishing a reputation as a strong leader:
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness …
Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his eminence that fills it up,
I stagger in – but this new governor …
... for a name
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me: ‘tis surely for a name.
- Most significantly, the audience learns in Act I sc iii that the absolute confidence in Angelo expressed by the Duke in the opening scene is not the full story: the Duke wonders about how Angelo will behave now he has power, and has deliberately left him in charge to test him:
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
Angelo as a strict judge
In spite of these comments, there is nothing in Angelo's behaviour at first to suggest that he is other than a man of strict virtue, living an exemplary life himself and, as he demands the highest standards of himself, judging others by the same criteria:
- He sees himself as well able to resist temptation:
Another thing to fall. (Act II sc i)
- He says that he is perfectly prepared to be judged by the same exacting standards that he imposes on others:
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. (Act II sc i)
- Although the Duke has enjoined Angelo to show mercy as well as judgement, Angelo seems to prefer severity; he leaves Escalus listening to the case against Pompey and Froth, in Act II sc i, with the words,
‘Hoping you'll find good cause to whip them all,'
and at the end of the scene the Justice remarks, ‘Lord Angelo is severe.'
- Angelo claims that strict justice is itself merciful, in that it protects the state and its citizens from future wrong-doing:
Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall. (Act II sc ii)
Angelo is wrong to suggest that he is above human frailty
During the play Shakespeare shows that there is a difference between earthly and divine rule. The advice in the biblical passage from which Shakespeare draws the title of his play, warning ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged' (Matthew 7:1-2, see also Introduction) - might well suggest that Angelo's strict judgement of others is, in God's eyes, questionable. As Isabella points out to him in Act II sc ii, because of the Fall of Adam and Eve all human beings are guilty of original sin, and all require God's grace and mercy (see also Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven):
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 you as you are?
Angelo discovers that he has human weaknesses
Angelo has prided himself on being immune to temptation, but during his first interview with Isabella he finds he is not. While others may be tempted by the obvious physical allurements of prostitutes, he is, paradoxically, drawn to the very quality of purity in her which would prevent him from indulging in sexual pleasure with her:
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? … Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue.
Lust or love?
It is significant that Angelo's immediate reaction to Isabella is to feel lust. Even though he calls it love (‘Plainly conceive, I love you,' he tells Isabella in Act II sc iv) it is clear that a baser instinct is at work:
- He demands that she gives up her body to his pleasure, ignoring her feelings on the matter
- He never attempts to persuade her to give up her intention to join the nunnery or to marry him (unlike the Duke at the end of the play), i.e., there is no sense of commitment to her
- He is happy to trap her through moral blackmail, rather than demonstrate concern for her honour
- All he desires is the satisfaction of his lust in the short term.
By having Angelo react in this way, Shakespeare makes Angelo's fall from virtue to vice more appalling, and he simultaneously makes Angelo's fault far worse than that of Claudio, whom Angelo has just condemned to death.
Angelo's cruelty and deviousness
- As well as his infamous demand of Isabella, he warns her that, if she refuses, Claudio will not only be put to death, but it will be a slow death by torture.
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
To ling'ring sufferance. (Act II sc iv)
- Later, once he thinks she has succumbed, he decides to have Claudio executed anyway, to protect himself from possibility of Claudio later avenging his sister's dishonour
- He also brings forward the hour of the execution to ensure that Isabella will not have time to expect a countermand of the order.
Revelations about Angelo's behaviour
There are further surprises for the audience about Angelo's character – and about the Duke's knowledge of him:
- In the middle of the play (Act III sc i) Isabella remarks to the ‘friar' (the disguised Duke), ‘But O, how much is the good Duke deceived in Angelo!'
- In response, the Duke reveals to her – and to the audience – that he has known for many years that there is a darker side to Angelo
- For the first time the audience hears the story of Angelo's despicable treatment of Mariana:
- He has abandoned his fiancée when her brother's tragic death left her alone and penniless
- He has deliberately slandered her reputation as a means of extricating himself from their betrothal
- Clearly, Angelo is not a man ‘of worth / To undergo such ample grace and honour.'
The late revelations about Angelo add to the many reasons why Measure for Measure is known as a ‘problem play' (see also Introduction):
- Shakespeare gives no explanation as to why the Duke alone appears to know of Mariana
- Isabella says she has ‘heard of the lady' (Act III sc i) but has obviously no idea of her sad history
- Escalus, Claudio and Lucio, all of whom comment on Angelo's reputation, make no mention of it
- Instead the audience is suddenly confronted with an understanding of ‘seeming' - the realisation that Angelo's apparently sudden succumbing to temptation is in fact the action of a very fallible man who has managed to present an appearance of virtue:
‘Tis not the devil's crest.
Angelo's repentance, reformation and forgiveness
The power of redemption
By the end of the play we see that Angelo's treatment of Mariana, and the Duke's awareness of it, itself becomes the means of his achieving greater self-knowledge. Mariana ‘hath yet in her the continuance of her first affection', and her love offers him the chance of mercy and redemption.
The realisation of failure
Shakespeare makes clear to us that the seeds of repentance are already growing in Angelo even before he realises that the Duke ‘like power divine' (Act V sc i) has known of all his actions:
- Regretting his decision to have Claudio executed in spite of the agreement with Isabella, Angelo comments (Act IV sc iv):
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would and we would not.
- In the last scene (Act V sc i), Angelo accepts that he is guilty and deserves the punishment of death:
But let my trial be mine own confession.
Immediate sentence then and sequent death
Is all the grace I beg.
It is part of the ‘redemptive pattern' of the play that Angelo is able to receive full grace. The Duke represents the ‘power divine' on which Angelo throws himself, and is able to undo the evil he believes he has been guilty of:
- Angelo has not violated Isabella
- He has made reparation to Mariana by marrying her
- Claudio has not been executed.
In response to Escalus' words of sadness at the revelation of Angelo's evil actions, and even before he knows he is to be spared, Angelo expresses full penitence:
And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart
That I crave death more willingly than mercy.
He has been a sinner, but now that he can admit it, and acknowledge that he has human failings to overcome, he can be offered the possibility of salvation. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity). As Mariana points out (encapsulating a key theme of the play):
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad. So may my husband.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
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