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Exploring Morality in Measure for Measure Essay

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Exploring Morality in Measure for Measure

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare is able to examine the concept of right and wrong through the characters of Mistress Overdone and Mariana. Throughout the play, by using characters that most people would find morally reprehensible, Shakespeare is able to give the audience a different view of these people and, hopefully, show his audience that people aren't always what they appear to be. Through the character of Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare is able to bring a jovial side to the oldest job known to man -- prostitution. Through the character of Mariana, Shakespeare allows the audience to decide if two wrongs do, in fact, make a right. While the concepts of right and wrong are given a…show more content…

However, who gives the right to one man, or a group of people, to determine what is right and wrong for everyone? This question allows Shakespeare to challenge the general notion of something always being right or wrong. Through this scene with Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare wants his audience to consider if something can be always right or always wrong. However, what he does prove is that a person determining morality for everyone else is always wrong. By not allowing individuals to determine what they want to do for themselves, no society will ever be able to become right.

In lines 244 - 253 of act five, scene one, Angelo explains to the Duke why he could not marry Mariana. Shakespeare, by showing a petty reason like her dowry was lost at sea, is able to have his audience believe that the actions of Mariana were right. However, even though these actions seem right, the audience has to wonder if, in fact, they are right. Is it right to lie to someone you are in love with in order for you to sleep with them? By putting that spin on it, most people would assume that not on is this wrong, but also immoral as well. By challenging people's general conceptions about what is right and wrong, Shakespeare is able to have his audience look at the situation in two different ways, and, in the end, make a decision for themselves.

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare uses the audience's general conceptions of

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Justice, Punishment, and Mercy as described in Measure for Measure

Beth Ciccolella, 2006

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure has many different interesting aspects to study. It is one of Shakespeare’s plays where many different parts of the culture of his time become more prominent, especially those parts that deal with the law, punishment, and justice. Shakespeare used two different contrasting views of justice in Measure for Measure to explore the concept of justice with his audience. As his audience included both King James and other people in Renaissance England, he had to deal with concepts familiar to them. The concepts of justice (either paired with mercy, or pure and completely void of human intervention), mercy, crime, and punishment, like so many of the topics of other plays by Shakespeare, are so universal that they are still interesting to the modern reader.

Much of Shakespeare’s work was based on the concepts, laws, and stories that were familiar in his time, to make it easier for his audience to understand (mainly because his plays would sell better when people understood them). Many of the laws in Elizabethan England were harsh by today’s standards, and would be included in the protection against cruel and unusual punishment in the Bill of Rights. “From the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign to the end of the seventeenth century high treason and all felonies, except petty larceny (i.e. theft of goods under the value of twelve pence), were punishable with death” (Underhill). Some of the methods of death were very cruel, and included things like hanging and beheading to being pressed to death by heavy rocks placed on one’s front while lying on sharp rocks to break the back. There were also many other punishments that people could be put through for more minor offences. Other methods of punishing lesser crimes included dunking, the pillory, and the stocks. If a woman spoke too freely, or gossiped too much, she was sometimes placed in a cage that fit just the head, with spikes around the mouth piece, so she could not speak without considerable pain. The PA Renaissance Faire installed a small museum this season describing these and many other methods of torture and punishment in Shakespeare’s time. “The Elizabethan age was pitiless, and the ‘way of the transgressor’ was certainly made as hard as it could be” Underhill).

In the middle of all this, Shakespeare wrote a play about the need for a balance between justice and mercy. Shakespeare seemed to use different characters to represent different means of defining and carrying out justice. Isabella was one of those characters. She was studying to be a sister in a convent, and generally was a very conservative person. When asked to plead to Angelo on behalf of her brother, she is not sure what to do. She knew that what Claudio did was wrong, but as he was her brother, she felt that his indiscretion was

A vice that I most do abhor,

And most desire should meet the blow of justice,

For which I would not plead, but that I must;

For which I must not plead, but that I am

At war ‘twixt will and will not. (Shakespeare II.ii.29-33)

She, at this point in the play, seems to be struggling with her own beliefs on the concepts of justice and mercy that all the characters seem to be plagued with throughout the play. However, later in the same conversation, we see that she has chosen mercy as the greater good, even for a sin that is so awful she would not commit it herself when Angelo offers the act in exchange for her brother’s life. “But though she talks of mercy and not of equity, I do not think that she speaks of a mercy that takes the place of justice, but rather… of a mercy that seasons and mitigates it” (Schanzer 234). Today the closest thing to this form of justice would probably be people who live by the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Isabella asks Angelo to look at himself, and consider what would happen if his and Claudio’s roles had been reversed. “If he had been as you, and you as he,/ You would have slipped like him, but he like you/ Would not have been so stern” (Shakespeare II.ii.66-68). In asking Angelo to have mercy on her brother, she is showing a kind of justice that is based on mercy and human feelings, as opposed to just giving people what they deserve.

Angelo’s idea of justice is contrary to Isabella’s. His is very impersonal, completely lacking any form of human feeling. “It is the law, not I, condemn your brother” (Shakespeare II.ii.82-83) he tells Isabella when she is pleading on Claudio’s behalf. He uses this to completely remove himself from any blame surrounding Claudio’s impending death. But Angelo is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He tries to make Isabella sleep with him to save her brother’s life, which is to commit the same sin for which Claudio is to be executed. “Angelo… cannot fulfill the ideal of justice to which he has committed himself” (Desmet 247).

Duke Valentino is another character that represents the connection between justice and mercy. In his character, we see the combination of two extremes. First, there is a period of unconditional mercy, with no real justice. Before the action of the play begins, he has decided to leave the city so that he may return and govern properly. This is done because “the city, having through his mercy forgotten what justice is, fails to recognize mercy as such and regards it as mere license to sin” (Parker 112). After his return to the city, there is a short period of unconditional justice, with no mercy. This is where he insists

The very mercy of the law cries out

Most audible, even from his proper tongue,

“An Angelo for a Claudio, death for death.”

Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure

Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure

(Shakespeare V.i.399-403)

When he is going to carry out the execution of Angelo as justice for Claudio’s death, Isabella joins in pleading with Marianna for Angelo’s life. This could be another example of using mercy to balance out justice, or it could be Isabella’s conscience weighing on her mind. If Angelo were to be killed, the death would partially be on her head. She told the Duke at the beginning of the scene that Angelo had violated her (Shakespeare V.i.20-121). Earlier in the play, however, she and Marianna had switched places, and Marianna, his wife to be, was the one who actually slept with him (Shakespeare IV.i). When Isabella says “Let him not die. My brother had justice,/ In that he did the thing for which he died” (Shakespeare V.i.440-441), she could just be telling the Duke that it would not be just to kill Angelo as he really didn’t do anything wrong to her, besides killing her brother.

When looking at the two different views on justice in this play, it is important, in the staging, that the actor or director decides when Isabella switches to a way of thinking about justice based on mercy, and if she switches at all. When she first starts pleading for Angelo’s life, she does not know if she is doing it because she really thinks he deserves mercy, or because he is her brother, and she feels that she has to (Shakespeare II.ii.29-33). At some point in her speeches to Angelo, she will begin to refer to him putting himself in Claudio’s place, and action that would lead to mercy. It is still up to the actor or director whether Isabella is speaking from the heart as someone who believes that mercy is an important part of distributing justice, or if she is speaking as a sister who feels a duty to save the life of her brother. Another character who could create a challenge to any actor would be Angelo. He is neither totally good, nor totally evil in any part of the play. The fact that he is merely human lets him hold in his mind the contradiction of committing the sin Claudio is condemned for to free Claudio. If we realize how many contradictions are in our beliefs, our own lives, and ourselves it causes us to feel more sorry for Angelo, and understand Isabella’s decision at the end of the play to ask for mercy on his behalf. When she said, “I partly think/ a due sincerity governed his deeds/ Till he did look on me” (Shakespeare V.i.437-439), she recognized that he is only human, and susceptible to the same faults her brother was, and all the citizens of Vienna were. At this point, it is possible that Isabella has chosen the need for mercy balancing justice. If, however, she is saving Angelo’s life for her own conscience, which as stated above is struggling with the action of lying to the Duke about being violated, that could change the reader’s interpretation of the entire play, or at least of Isabella’s character.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure discusses the difference between justice without mercy, justice based solely on mercy, and the happy medium that is needed to properly run a government. Shakespeare “is profoundly concerned with the impact on human being of abstract justice when the rigors of the law are applied by a zealot” (Shakespeare Introduction xii). This is a topic that holds much importance in the physical health of any person in the Renaissance, as most of the means of punishment in Shakespeare’s time involved physical pain or death. Measure for Measure shows what a justice system that does not show mercy to human error can do to the people who live by it.

Works Cited:

Desmet, Christy, “Measure for Measure: A Modern Perspective.” Measure for Measure. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Westine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1997. 245-57.

Parker, M.H.. The Slave of Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1955.

Schanzer, Ernest. “Justice and King James in Measure for MeasureShakespeare: Measure for Measure: A Casebook. Ed. C.K. Stead. London, Macmillan, 1971. 233-41.

Shakespeare, William. Introduction. Measure for Measure. By Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar. New York: Washington Square Press, 1965.

Shakespeare, William. “Measure for Measure.”The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jen E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 2021-2090.

Underhill, Arthur. “Criminal Law.” Shakespeare Law Library. SOURCCETEXT. 3 November 2003.


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