The name ‘Escalus', spoken by the Duke, is the very first word we hear at the start of the play, and consideration of this character will show that this prominence is appropriate; although in some ways a minor character, Escalus is one of the most significant.

Escalus as experienced councillor

  • We are told by the Duke, as he speaks to Escalus in the opening scene, that Escalus has an excellent understanding of how to govern:
Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t'affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you ... The nature of our people,
Our city's institutions, and the terms
For common justice, y'are as pregnant in
As art and practice hath enriched any
That we remember
  • Later in the scene the Duke describes him as ‘old Escalus', suggesting that this knowledge of government has been acquired through long experience.
  • As the play proceeds, it is Escalus who seems to strike the right balance between justice and mercy in Vienna's court, and who urges Angelo to consider his own human frailty – thereby putting forward the precept from the New Testament passage which (in the words of the Bible from Shakespeare's time) gives the play its title: Matthew 7:1-2.
Escalus' advice to Angelo
Escalus wisely – and, in the event, only too justly - points out to Angelo (in Act II sc i) that he too could potentially be a sinner:
Let but your honour know –
Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue –
That in the working of your own affections,
Had time coher'd with place, or place with wishing ...
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Err'd in this point, which now you censure him,
And pull'd the law upon you.
Escalus is aware that those in power are not beyond corruption, and that all people need God's forgiveness:
Well, heaven forgive him; and forgive us all.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall

Escalus as a firm judge

  • Escalus is not blind to the need to deal firmly with villains: when Pompey and Froth are brought before him, in Act II sc i, Escalus is not taken in by Pompey's verbal trickery.
  • Nevertheless, he listens patiently, even after Angelo has left in exasperation, saying, ‘This will last out a night in Russia'. Although Angelo remarks, without waiting to hear all the evidence, that he hopes Escalus will ‘find good cause to whip them all', Escalus takes great pains to give Pompey a full hearing.
  • However, he knows what kind of a man he is dealing with, and ultimately he responds accordingly:
Pompey, you are partly a bawd, Pompey, howsoever you colour it in being a tapster … I advise you, let me not find you before me again upon any complaint whatsoever; no, not for dwelling where you do. If I do ... I shall have you whipped.

Escalus acts to improve Vienna

Escalus takes sensible and practical steps to improve the rule of law in Vienna – perhaps the only person who does so:
  • Realising that Elbow is inadequate as a constable, Escalus tactfully moves to replace him, by suggesting that the role is onerous and needs sharing:
Alas, it hath been great pains to you: they do you wrong to put you so oft upon't … Look you bring me in the names of some six or seven, the most sufficient of your parish.
  • Whereas Angelo has acted, as far as we see, only against Claudio, who is guilty under the strict letter of the law but not its spirit, Escalus takes action against the real cause of corruption in Vienna – the persistent bawds and prostitutes.
  • In Act III sc ii he arrives at the prison as the Provost is bringing in Mistress Overdone, and announces, ‘Away with her to prison.' When she appeals to Escalus, crying that he ‘is accounted a merciful man', he replies that she has had ‘double and treble admonition'. Such repeated offending ‘would make mercy swear and play the tyrant.'

Escalus as a virtuous man

Escalus's clear conscience is shown in contrast to Angelo's guilty fear in Act IV sc iv, when they hear news of the Duke's return. Although Escalus is disconcerted by the Duke's letters, which seem to contradict each other, he tries to explain his ruler's commands – ‘He shows his reason for that' – whereas Angelo tries to suggest that the Duke's judgement cannot be trusted:
‘Pray heaven his wisdom be not tainted.'
The play includes many instances of back-biting and calumny, but Escalus is never guilty of slander:
  • Throughout much of the last scene Escalus, still unaware of Angelo's guilt, supports him against what is apparently a plot to discredit him.
  • He is ‘amaz'd' when he learns the truth.
  • However, he does not turn on Angelo in disgust, nor does he gloat, but expresses genuine surprise and sorrow:
I am sorry one so learned and so wise
As you, Lord Angelo, have still appear'd,
Should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood
And lack of temper'd judgement afterward
  • After hearing Lucio's slanders against ‘the Duke that is absent' in Act III sc ii, it is Escalus that the Duke asks for an objective assessment of himself:
‘I pray you, sir, of what disposition was the Duke?'

Escalus's reply – 

‘One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself'

suggests that this is a quality which Escalus greatly esteems.

  • Whatever the audience may think of this assessment of the Duke as they have seen him in action during the course of Measure for Measure, Escalus himself seems to display a ‘sufficiency' of character which is rare in Shakespeare's Vienna.

Worthy of praise

The Duke values Escalus: not only does the play start with praise of him, but at the end he is specifically thanked for his ‘much goodness', and promised due reward:
‘There's more behind that is more gratulate.'
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