The Duke

It is important to realise that critics have long disagreed over the character of the Duke, and, as is so often the case with Shakespeare, there is no one answer. It is not possible to have a ‘right or wrong' view; what matters is to read the play with an open mind and to be aware that the evidence which the text presents about the Duke and his behaviour is often contradictory.

Is the Duke God-like and righteous?

A representation of James I

One way of viewing the Duke is to see him as (in Angelo's words from Act V) ‘power divine' who has ‘looked upon (the) passes' of his subjects:James I

  • He certainly shares some of the qualities which James I viewed as exhibiting ‘Divine right of kings' (see Religious/philosophical context > Divine right of kings), such as having power of life and death over his subjects and meting out both justice and mercy
  • This idea could be reinforced by the fact that kings were seen as God's deputies on earth
  • Angelo is called ‘the Deputy' on several occasions, which would reinforce the Duke's God-like status.

A representation of Christ

Being both supreme ruler, suggesting that he may represent God, and at the same time being able to move among his subjects, the Duke might have been seen by a Jacobean audience as a reflection of God incarnate in human form as Christ:

  • The fact that the Duke disguises himself as a friar – a man in holy orders with the status of a priest – links him with the idea of divinity. He has heard the confessions of Mariana, and gives spiritual advice to Claudio and Juliet
  • Escalus, who seems a trust-worthy character, esteems the Duke highly, describing him (in Act III sc ii) as ‘One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself … A gentleman of all temperance.'

Is the Duke a deceitful hypocrite?

Nevertheless, the Duke's behaviour may well seem deceitful and strange:

  • He dresses up as a friar and hears confessions, when he is not a priest and has to ask Friar Thomas (Act I sc iii) not only to lend him a ‘habit', or friar's robe, but to explain to him how to behave as a friar
  • There are many aspects of the Duke's behaviour and attitudes which the audience may feel are less than righteous; he may come across to some as devious, interfering and hypocritical.

Does the Duke bring justice to Vienna?

Morally questionable is the whole premise upon which the Duke decides to leave Vienna:

  • He knows that he has neglected to enforce the laws of Vienna to such an extent that the state is on the verge of chaos:
We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades,
Which for these fourteen years we have let slip …
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.

Friar Thomas rightly points out to the Duke: ‘It rested in your Grace / To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleas'd.'

  • In fact, not only has the Duke not taken action for many years (fourteen according to his words in Act I sc iii, but nineteen according to Claudio in Act I sc ii), he does not take decisive steps to put the matter right at the end of the play. Returning in Act V, he comments bitterly on the situation in Vienna:
‘where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
till it o'errun the stew.'
He points out yet again that there are:
‘laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanc'd that the strong statutes (are) …
As much in mock as mark.'
  • Though the Duke deals with Angelo and Lucio, there is no indication that rogues such as Pompey and brothel-keepers like Mistress Overdone will be kept in check
  • He has exposed the wrongs done by Angelo but never publicly acknowledges his own short-comings as a ruler.

Is the Duke right to leave Angelo in charge?

A test of virtue?

The Duke's apparent disappearance from Vienna, leaving Angelo in charge, may be viewed with suspicion:

  • Ostensibly, the Duke sees Angelo as a man of strict virtue:
Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with Envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows; or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone. (Act I sc iii)
  • However, the Duke suggests to Friar Thomas that Angelo may not be all he seems, and that power may corrupt him
  • The audience may ask themselves whether it is fair to impose this test on Angelo who, in Act I sc i, points out himself that he feels unworthy:
Let there be some more test made of my metal,
Before so noble and so great a figure
Be stamp'd on it.
  • The Duke's motives appear all the more suspect when suddenly, in Act III sc i, he reveals that he has known all along that Angelo, though ‘well-seeming', is in fact duplicitous and untrustworthy. When Isabella cries out, ‘But O, how much is the good Duke deceived in Angelo!', he tells her that he is not deceived at all; he has long known of Angelo's treatment of Mariana:
Angelo … left her in her tears, and dried not one of them with his comfort: swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonour … a marble to her tears, is washed with them, but relents not.

A manipulative ruler

  • Instead of immediately denouncing Angelo once the Duke knows of the foul bargain demanded to save Claudio, he embarks upon even more extraordinary, wily and secret planning
  • In the event, by underestimating Angelo's treachery, the Duke is nearly out-manoeuvred and Claudio is almost beheaded
  • As it is, the Duke makes Claudio, Juliet, Isabella and Mariana, as well as Angelo, all undergo a terrible test. He even decides that it will be good for Isabella not to be told that Claudio has escaped execution:
I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair
When it is least expected. (Act IV sc iii)

The virtue of teaching self-knowledge

Escalus's words about the Duke – that he ‘contended especially to know himself' – allow a different view of the Duke's motives to emerge. It is possible to see that, by making his subjects face elements of their own character and behaviour, the Duke does a great favour to those whose lives he manipulates in Measure for Measure:

More on self-knowledge in Shakespeare: Shakespeare often focuses on the importance of self-knowledge and of the tragedy that may ensue if it comes too late; these are central themes of, for example, King Lear and Othello.
  • Claudio does not die, but by coming so close to death he has to face up to the nature of mortality and to think of his soul as well as his body; he has also been led to acknowledge his sin, professing, as the Duke says in Act III sc ii, that he deserves his sentence and has ‘received no sinister measure.'
  • Juliet is brought to confront her own sexual behaviour and to acknowledge her part in endangering her lover's life
  • Isabella is led to see that mercy is as vital as justice; she also has to face her own sexuality and to accept that humans have a physical life on earth as well as a soul (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity).

Far from self-indulgently engaging in a ‘mad, fantastical trick' (Act III sc ii) by apparently leaving Vienna, the Duke may have been responsible for the greater happiness, in the long run, of his subjects. This would confirm Escalus' view of the Duke (Act III sc ii) that he was always ‘rejoicing to see another merry.'

How far is the Duke prepared to face his own failings?

Although Escalus says in Act III sc ii that the Duke ‘contended especially to know himself', there are times in the play when the audience may doubt this.

Sensitive to criticism

Faced with Lucio's slanders, the Duke does seek to know Escalus' opinion, which seems to suggest that Escalus's comment is true.

  • However, the audience is also aware that the Duke is very unhappy about criticism. He openly admits to Friar Thomas in Act I sc iii that part of his motive in leaving Angelo in charge of reinforcing the laws in Vienna, is so that Angelo, rather than the Duke, can face any public outcry:
I have on Angelo impos'd the office;
Who may in th'ambush of my name strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander.
  • Shortly before his encounter with Escalus in Act III sc ii, the Duke again reveals his hatred of public criticism:
No might nor greatness in mortality
Can censure ‘scape. Back-wounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?
  • At the end of the play, he lets Lucio off his sentence of whipping and hanging, but insists he marry the prostitute who is mother of his child – not because this is the moral thing to do, but because ‘slandering a prince deserves it.'

The Duke and the public

Another aspect of the Duke which may seem problematic is his attitude to the public:

  • In Act I sc i he steals away quietly because, as he says, the man who likes public adulation is untrustworthy:
I'll privily away. I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes:
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and Aves vehement:
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it.
  • Yet at the end of the play he insists on a very public re-appearance back in Vienna. The citizens are bade to meet him at the gates, he enters to fanfares of trumpets and his disgrace of Angelo is conducted in as public a way as possible.
  • If this were to herald a public pronouncement of changes to the way life in Vienna is to be conducted in the future, this could well be seen as eminently justifiable. But no such drastic changes are put in motion. The only great change in sight is that the Duke makes it clear that he hopes to marry Isabella.

What is the Duke's attitude to love?

The Duke's proposal to Isabella comes as a complete surprise to the audience; if a theatrical producer attempts to hint at the Duke's romantic feelings for her before the end of the last scene, this must be done without any help from the text, which is silent on the matter.

Indeed, all the audience knows about her feelings is that she has planned to enter a nunnery, thereby rejecting any sexual life. Her reaction to Angelo, and indeed to her brother's plea for life, has suggested that she sees no pleasure in sexual activity. Keeping us guessing still further, there are no lines in the text for Isabella in response to the Duke's proposal. (See also Characterisation > Isabella.)

More strangely still, the only thing we have heard earlier about the Duke's romantic feelings is that he despises the ‘dribbling dart of love', as he explains to Friar Thomas in Act I sc iii. As they enter, the Friar has presumably been suggesting that the Duke's departure from Vienna is part of some love-intrigue, but the Duke sternly rejects the idea. He associates such passion with ‘burning youth', whereas he himself is beyond such trivialities: he has a ‘complete bosom'.

Shakespeare leaves the audience in doubt

It would have been quite possible, of course, for Shakespeare to have written soliloquies for the Duke, as he does for Angelo, in which the Duke examined his own motives. But such soliloquies are lacking. There are inconsistencies and dilemmas throughout the play. Each reader, each member of the audience, must come to his or her own conclusion about the Duke – or accept that reaching any such conclusion is impossible and that this complexity is part of the great interest of the play. It may be, after all, that Shakespeare has conveyed through the problematic nature of the Duke the differences between earthly and heavenly justice and mercy.

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