Judgement on earth and in heaven

Death and life after death: the soul

Death is not the end

Christians believe that they have an immortal soul. In other words, a human being does not simply consist of a body which will die, but also has a spirit which will live on for eternity after the death of the body. They also believe that, after death, all humans will be judged by God according to their actions on earth. This belief is seen throughout Measure for Measure, even by such reprobate characters as Barnardine, who declares (Act IV sc iii) that he ‘is not fitted' for death - a judgement with which the disguised Duke agrees:

A creature unprepar'd, unmeet for death;
And to transport him in the mind he is
Were damnable

We see awareness of eternal life particularly in Isabella, who is more concerned for her soul than her body; as she tells Angelo, ‘I had rather give my body than my soul' (Act II sc iv). She shows, too, that she feels the same concern for Claudio, telling Angelo that she wants to ensure ‘he may be so fitted / That his soul sicken not.'

Getting the balance

However, her attitude is not shared by all the other characters, and one of the questions with which Shakespeare faces his audience is how to balance enjoyment of life on earth with an awareness that there is also another existence after death. (See also Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity). The Duke, disguised as a friar, advises Claudio (Act II sc i) that life is not worth living- it is ‘a thing / That none but fools would keep' – yet Claudio is desperate to save his life

Judgement, justice and mercy

Judge as you will be judged

Measure for Measure takes its title from a passage in the New Testament of the Bible (Matthew 7:1-2; see also Introduction) which warns people not to judge one another harshly, since after death they too will be judged by God, and judged according to the ‘measure' of their judgements of their fellow human beings.
Shakespeare examines this idea in depth, showing his audience the difference between heavenly judgement, which is always tempered with mercy, and earthly judgement, where too much mercy or lenity can lead to chaos in the state. God will forgive the penitent sinner, but an earthly judge has to tread carefully when deciding how to apply the laws and penalties.

Too much leniency

What we see in Measure for Measure is that the Duke has failed to apply the ‘strict statutes and most biting laws' which exist in Vienna:
  • Consequently there is a situation verging on anarchy, where
‘Liberty plucks Justice by the nose … and quite athwart goes all decorum.' (Act I sc iii)
  • Showing too much leniency has proved more harmful to the state and its citizens than too much severity; as Escalus remarks (Act II sc i)
‘Mercy is not itself that oft looks so.'

The God-like ruler

The Duke, however, is seen in some respects as God-like in his powers, and when speaking of the murderer Barnardine, the Duke asks:
‘How came it that the absent Duke had not either delivered him to his liberty or executed him? I have heard that it was ever his manner to do so.'
This idea of clear-cut judgement could well have reminded Shakespeare's audience of the biblical account of God's judgement of humans in Matthew 25:34-41, where God rewards the righteous but condemns the wicked.
Then the King will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world'
... Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.' (TNIV)

The problem of human justice

Shakespeare shows that while God's justice is based upon His thorough knowledge and understanding of the individual soul, applying human justice may be more problematic:
  • In Measure for Measure we see that Angelo, having decided to apply rigorously the law whereby fornication (sexual intercourse outside marriage) is punished by death, arrests Claudio as the first offender.
  • Yet although Claudio is guilty by the letter of the law, he is not guilty under what is nowadays called ‘common justice', or the spirit of the law, since he regards Juliet as his wife.
  • The audience may well feel that he is essentially innocent.
  • On the other hand, rogues such as Lucio and Pompey, who are clearly guilty, seem to manage to wriggle out of the due penalties for their offences.


The possibility of rescue

In her debate with Angelo in Act II sc ii, Isabella points out to Angelo that God operates in more than one aspect - as both judge and redeemer. She outlines the Christian belief that, because of human sin, beginning with Adam and Eve, all people deserve punishment. However, God came to earth in human form as Jesus Christ, and through his crucifixion and resurrection, offered redemption (which literally means ‘buying back') from sin to all who are penitent.
Why, all the souls that were, 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 you as you are? O think on that,
And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
As man new made.
As a result of God's mercy, sinners can be saved and allowed to enter heaven. This is redemption through grace.

Human rescue?

By contrast, the offer Angelo makes is to save Claudio physically if Isabella gives up her body. As she retorts (Act II sc iv):
Ignomy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses: lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption.

Heaven and Hell


Christians believe that heaven is a place of eternal joy, where God is surrounded by angels – creatures of pure spirit who act as God's messengers to earth. (It is ironic that Angelo, whose name suggests that he is such a creature, and who wishes to be seen as virtuous, is in fact corrupt.)
Heaven is depicted as a place of shining light and great beauty: the most famous vision of the Christian heaven is in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. The Bible teaches that those who:
  • repent of their wrong attitudes and actions
  • accept the forgiveness won through Christ's death on the Cross
  • seek to live in obedience to God while on earth
will spend eternity in heaven with him.


HellHowever, those who are not repentant, and are condemned by their own actions before God, go to Hell. This has been depicted as a place of torment.
It is the fear of such an eternity of pain and misery which is behind Claudio's anguished appeal to Isabella in Act III sc i, where he imagines ‘what we fear of death':
To bath in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice:
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world: or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling,- ‘tis too horrible.


God's grace

No human being deserves to enter heaven because all are guilty of sin. However, salvation is possible through grace. Grace is closely associated with mercy, since one of its most significant meanings is ‘the undeserved mercy of God given to sinners'.

Human grace

Grace also has a wider meaning, signifying the blessing or favour of God; by extension, it also comes to mean a favour bestowed by a human, or a pleasing human quality. Isabella uses it in both senses when she compares human mercy to God's:
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.
Angelo, too, seems to imply both God's grace and human virtue when he comments in soliloquy on his own evil (Act IV sc iv):
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right; we would, and we would not

Thanksgiving prayer

‘Grace' also comes to be used as the term for a prayer of thanks to God before a meal. It is punned on in this way by the reprobate Lucio and his friends when they joke (Act I sc ii) about soldiers disliking the prayer for peace:

‘I think thou never wast where grace was said ... Grace is grace, despite of all controversy; as for example, thou thyself art a wicked villain, despite of all grace.'

A noble title

Throughout Measure for Measure people of high rank are addressed by courtesy titles such as ‘My Lord' and ‘Your honour'. Another such title is ‘Your Grace'. In one sense it is merely equivalent to saying ‘My Lord,' but because of the many references in Measure for Measure to the nature of divine and earthly justice and mercy, it comes to have added significance.

When Angelo calls the Duke by this title in the last Act,


‘Your Grace, like power divine, hath looked upon my passes'

the word is used as a deliberate reminder to the audience that the Duke is able to show God-like mercy.

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.