The role of government

Liberty and restraint

Throughout Measure for Measure, Shakespeare examines how to strike a balance between extremes. (See Themes and significant ideas > The nature of humanity.) The greatest compliment paid to the Duke is Escalus' comment that he is ‘A gentleman of all temperance' – which means ‘moderation'.

One of the areas which Shakespeare examines is how to strike a balance between too much liberty and too much restraint. Using sexual licence and imprisonment as two examples, he examines the whole question of how far human beings should be allowed to do what they want, and how far they should be restricted. These matters are still very relevant today, when, throughout the world, matters of human rights and liberties are balanced against the power of the state.

The very first line of the play tells us that it is to deal with this question of how to govern – ‘Of government the properties to unfold'. As the play continues, almost every character is somehow involved in the discussion. Claudio himself sums up the problem in his first conversation with Lucio (Act I sc ii):

Lucio: Why, how now, Claudio? Whence comes this restraint?

Claudio: From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty,
­­­­­As surfeit, is the father of much fast;
So every scope by the immoderate use
Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil: and when we drink, we die.

Law and punishment

In James' England, the King was, in theory, not in absolute control, as he had judges and magistrates to apply his laws. However, James believed strongly in his ‘divine right' as a ruler (see also Religious/philosophical context > Divine right of kings) and that his will should be seen as supreme.

Accused witches being burntThere were ‘strict statutes and most biting laws', such as the Duke refers to in Act I sc iii of Measure for Measure. The death penalty could be applied for what would today be regarded as minor offences, and public whippings and hangings were common. Miscreants could also be branded, have their ears cut off, or be set in the stocks or pillory. James I himself believed in witchcraft, and under his rule many so-called witches were executed by hanging or burning.

Although Measure for Measure is ostensibly set in Vienna, it actually reflects the legal system in England at the time. The audience learns that there is a system of local constables and that penalties for breaking the law involve whipping, imprisonment and beheading.

Marriage laws and customs

Although the Church expected people to marry using a religious service, and the Book of Common Prayer set out a service of Holy Matrimony (marriage), there were also other forms of betrothal and marriage recognised by English common law, and it is these forms which are relevant to the plot of Measure for Measure:

  • ‘Sponsalia per verbi de praesenti' literally meant ‘espousal (i.e., marriage) by the word given at the present time'. Those who made this promise to each other were regarded as legally married, whether or not they then went through the consecration of a church marriage. By this arrangement, Juliet and Claudio regard themselves as married; as he explains to Lucio:
Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed.
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order
  • Angelo and Mariana were betrothed by ‘sponsalia per verba de futuro', which was an agreement to marry in the future. This agreement could be put aside if certain conditions, such as an agreed dowry, were not fulfilled:
    • Because Mariana lost her dowry, Angelo wanted to break the agreement, but rather than admit it was because of money, he pretended that Mariana had stained her reputation.
    • However, those who entered into a ‘de futuro' agreement could not break it if their relationship was physically consummated. Hence the idea suggested by the Duke that Mariana could complete her marriage if she could get Angelo to sleep with her. As the Duke tells her:
He is your husband on a pre-contract:
To bring you thus together ‘tis no sin.
  • Although technically it was a sin to have sexual relations before being married in church, nevertheless we can see that morally the Duke has a point: in comparing Claudio and Angelo, we see that Claudio is far more honourable than Angelo, even though the latter had a legal right to break the contract.

Power and authority

God's deputy

If restraint is to be imposed on human activity by human laws and authority, then it becomes a question who is to undertake the task. James I, the King of England at the time that Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure, saw himself as holding power directly from God, and as being God's deputy on earth. (See Religious/philosophical context > Divine right of kings.) The term ‘deputy' when applied to Angelo thus takes on a particular resonance in this play: if Angelo is the Duke's deputy, does that mean that the Duke is to be seen as god-like? (See Characterisation.)

Qualities of a leader

It is made clear in discussions throughout the play that the character of those who assume power is very significant:

  • Isabella (Act I sc ii) reminds Angelo that humans are not God, and that they may misuse their authority:
Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak,
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority ...
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.
  • The Duke (knowing, in fact, of Angelo's corruption) tells the Provost (Act IV sc ii) that a ruler should be guiltless of crimes he himself condemns:

‘Were he meal'd with that / Which he corrects, then were he tyrannous.'

  • Isabella has already told Angelo (in Act II sc ii) that those in power often use their position to hide their own evil:
Authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself
That skins the vice o'th' top.
  • Angelo, however, has argued to Escalus (Act II sc i) that the law is more important than those who administer it:
The jury passing on the prisoner's life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief, or two,
Guiltier than him they try. What's open made to justice,
That justice seizes.
  • Nevertheless, Angelo also agrees that no-one is above the law; a guilty judge is to be condemned:
When I that censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. (Act II sc i)


It is one of the many problems of the play that the audience is never sure what to make of the Duke, the supreme ruler in Vienna:
  • Escalus describes him as virtuous – ‘One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself'
  • But we never know why the Duke allowed Vienna to become riddled with corruption in the first place
At the end of the play the nature of power and authority still remains problematic.


Angelo seems, at the start of the play, to be worthy of power. He has a reputation for virtue and seriousness – ‘My gravity, / Wherein –let no man hear me – I take pride' (Act II sc iv). The Duke comments (ironically, as it turns out) on this reputation in the first scene of the play:
There is a kind of character in thy life
That to th'observer doth thy history
Fully unfold.
It is this reputation which the Duke challenges by the test he makes Angelo undergo during the course of the play. A reputation may well be false, and a taste of power may well corrupt. As the Duke comments in Act I sc iii:
Hence shall we see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.
(See Imagery and symbolism > Disguise and seeming.)
Angelo values his reputation as ‘A man of stricture and firm abstinence' (Act I sc iii) and indeed Claudio perceives that his actions may be deliberately undertaken to enhance it:
This new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties ...
… and for a name
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me: ‘tis surely for a name.

The Duke, too, values his own reputation. He is appalled by Lucio's description of the ‘absent Duke' as


‘A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow',

and retorts that


‘The very stream of his life ... must upon a warranted need give him a better proclamation.' (Act III sc ii)

So horrified is he that he rapidly seeks reassurance from Escalus:


‘I pray you, sir, of what disposition was the Duke?'

Reputations matter, and it is therefore all the more appalling that Angelo sought to escape from his promise of marriage to Mariana by falsely attacking hers, by ‘pretending in her discoveries of dishonour' (Act III sc i). This is a lie which he maintains even in the last scene of the play, claiming still that ‘her reputation was disvalu'd / In levity.'


Closely allied with the word ‘reputation' is the idea of honour, which implies:

  • having a reputation for what is morally right
  • being high-principled.

To be dishonoured suggests that one's respect and reputation have gone. Angelo tells himself that he would have let Claudio live, but feared that he:

‘Might in times to come have ta'en revenge
By so receiving a dishonour'd life
With ransom of such shame.' (Act IV sc iv)

Honour as a title

By extension ‘honour' comes to mean the respect paid to a person who has worthy qualities. As with the word ‘grace', (see Themes and significant ideas > Judgement on earth and in heaven) the word ‘honour' is also used in Measure for Measure with a double meaning – as both a virtuous quality and as a courtesy title, the equivalent of ‘My Lord'.

False honour

Because of his corruption, the title ‘your honour', when applied to Angelo, becomes ironic:

  • He has little sense of honour in his dealings with Isabella. He realises this himself at the end of his first interview with her, for when she says politely, ‘Save your honour', he remarks to himself' ‘From thee: even from thy virtue'
  • Angelo has been equally dishonourable in his treatment of Mariana. His claim in the final scene that he has not seen her for five years ‘Upon my faith and honour' is deeply ironic: he has not seen her because he has shown no faith and honour towards her.
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