"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Measure for Measure–Rule of Law

Shakespeare never ceases to amaze.  Every play is different, and although I am now a bit weary of disguises and cross-dressing, Measure for Measure is an intriguing, challenging, and enjoyable play.  As in many of the Comedies, the ending is a bit too nicely tied up (everyone is forgiven, relationships are concluded, and the dukedom is back at rest); but the moral and legal debates which precedes it show insights into governance, the place of law in society and with respect to God’s law, and the impact of law or the lack thereof on society.

The reason why Measure for Measure is often characterized as a “Problem Play” is because it is not purely a comedy where the foibles of men and women (especially men) are in full display, recognition and repentance follow, and all live happily ever after.  There are more serious issues to be explored.  Some critics have called this a type of morality play, where moral dilemmas are faced and decided.  The saintly Isabella, faced with the sexual harassment of the Duke and his offer to lift the death sentence of her brother, Claudio, if she sleeps with the Duke, insists that Claudio die to preserve her virginity.  She and Claudio debate the issue; and when he hears that his sister wishes him to die, Claudio intones the following scary description of life after death, to be avoided at all costs:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe 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!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

The sanctimonious, outraged Isabella replies:

O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. Take my defiance!
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed:
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee.

There is always logic in the utterances of Isabella, Angelo, and the rest of the play’s characters, even if this logic is circuitous or perverse, as in Isabella’s wonderful lines: “Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life From thine own sister’s shame?”.  These two passages set forth one of the central moral issues of the play – should a woman commit what to her is an egregious and unforgiveable sin to save the life of one she considers a sinner even if he is her brother?  (The other issue, woven in with the first is the perpetual conflict between law and individual morality and God’s law).

Critics have commented that this is a very Christian play, and the logic within the context of debatable morality is very Thomistic. Shakespeare uses this ‘logical morality’ to introduce the idea of the rule of law, and in the following and in many other passages, discusses Man’s law vs. God’s, the individual’s vs. the State, etc.; and it is this conjunction of logic, morality, and law which makes Measure for Measure such an intriguing play.

Take the following exchange between Angelo and Isabella:

Ang. Ha! fie, these filthy vices! It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid: 'tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made
As to put metal in restrained means
To make a false one.

Isab. 'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth.

Ang. Say you so? then I shall pose you quickly.
Which had you rather, that the most just law
Now took your brother's life; or, to redeem him,
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she that he hath stain'd?

Isab. Sir, believe this,
I had rather give my body than my soul.

Ang.I talk not of your soul: our compell'd sins
Stand more for number than for accompt.

Isab. How say you?

Ang. Nay, I'll not warrant that; for I can speak
Against the thing I say. Answer to this:
I, now the voice of the recorded law,
Pronounce a sentence on your brother's life:
Might there not be a charity in sin
To save this brother's life?

Isab. Please you to do't,
I'll take it as a peril to my soul,
It is no sin at all, but charity.

Crimes are crimes, posits Angelo, and the law is the law.  The legal and moral decision is to bring all criminals to justice.  Yes, says Isabella, but it is God who gives and takes away, and who is the final judge, not Man.  Really?, say Angelo to Isabella.  If you agree that the law on which I based my condemnation is just; then why do say that sleeping with me – i.e. committing the same crime as your brother did with Claudio – is wrong to save his life? And, he goes on, sins that are compelled – such as my sleeping with you – are never counted against you in any earthly or heavenly court. 

Then Angelo introduces the concept of charity (which Isabella herself reiterates later in the play) – OK, so you sleep with me, but does not this act of charity to save your brother’s life trump sin? Perhaps, replies Isabella, but the peril to my soul trumps any act of earthly charity.

To others in the play, however, this debating the number of angels on the head of a pin holds no water.  Fornication is simply not a serious sin, but a common act commonly practiced.  It may be a sin, for certainly it is on the books of both God and Man, but not one punishable by death.  Angelo and Isabella are two ice-blooded, stubborn, pig-headed people.  Angelo, although he bases his edicts and decrees on the law, the extent of punishment exacted is more an expression of his desire to show the world who’s boss rather than apply the law justly.   Moreover, Angelo is completely out of touch.  There is no way that his decree outlawing houses of prostitution will be obeyed.  It is the world’s oldest profession and will remain a vibrant business.  Laws that prohibit prostitution are wrongfully decided laws and should be disobeyed, as in this exchange between Pompey, the bawd, and Escalus, an elder statesman:

Esc. How would you live, Pompey? by being a bawd? What
do you think of the trade, Pompey? is it a lawful trade?

Pompey. If the law would allow it, sir

Esc. But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall
not be allowed in Vienna.

Pompey Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the
youth of the city?

Esc. No, Pompey.

Pompey. Truly, sir, in my poor opinion, they will to't then.
If your worship will take order for the drabs and
the knaves, you need not to fear the bawds.

Esc. There are pretty orders beginning, I can tell you:
it is but heading and hanging.

Pompey If you head and hang all that offend that way but
for ten year together, you'll be glad to give out a
commission for more heads: if this law hold in
Vienna ten year, I'll rent the fairest house in it
after three-pence a bay: if you live to see this
come to pass, say Pompey told you so.

The issue of the rule of law, is also addressed outside the context of morality. Angelo, deputy to Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, has been left in charge by his boss to clean up the city, especially to deal with rampant prostitution.  Meanwhile, the Duke adopts the disguise of a friar so that he can observe what his deputy does and how the citizenry react.  The reason he gives for taking this action is that he, in his relaxed if not negligent rule, is the cause of the profligacy and degeneration of the city; and his subjects would react violently if he suddenly turned vigilant and condemning.

Angelo because of his narrow and unforgiving nature, and perhaps more because he wants to show results to his boss, is a merciless ruler, and one of his first edicts is to condemn to death Claudio who has done nothing more than sleep with the woman to whom he is betrothed and only waiting for the paperwork. Claudio observes the perennial phenomenon of new rulers:

And the new deputy now for the duke--
Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
Or whether that the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur;
Whether the tyranny be in his place,
Or in his emmence that fills it up,
I stagger in:--but this new governor
Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
Which have, like unscour'd armour, hung by the wall
So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round
And none of them been worn; and, for a name,
Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
Freshly on me: 'tis surely for a name.

The Duke, although weak and indecisive and unwilling to take unpopular political decisions, is a good leader, for he understands the principle of a just rule:

There is a kind of character in thy life,
That to the observer doth thy history
Fully unfold. Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch'd
But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use. But I do bend my speech
To one that can my part in him advertise;
Hold therefore, Angelo:--
In our remove be thou at full ourself;
Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart..

Angelo is just the opposite, but yet he understands certain principles of rule that the Duke may not.  Here he rightly observes that laws are nothing without enforcement:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Or here he explicates the legal difference between intent and action, and the way the law disregards the goodness or righteousness of individuals when applying the law.

'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny,
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: what know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? 'Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take't
Because we see it; but what we do not see
We tread upon, and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.

Later, in another debate with Isabella, similar to that quoted above, Angelo says “It is the law, not I, condemns your brother” stating clearly that there is no room for personality or personal judgment when it comes to the law.  Isabella raises the issue of precedent, saying, in reference to her brother’s sentence, “Who is it that hath died for this offense? There’s many have committed it”; but Angelo replies that the law simply has not been applied, which is the responsibility of the a ruler, and if it had been, many more would have died.

Perhaps the wisest and most telling statement of Angelo which confirms his understanding of the relationship between pity and mercy and the consequences of them within the law.  When Isabella asks him to show her some pity, he replies:

I show it most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss'd offence would after gall;
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies to-morrow; be content.

In other words, pity and mercy, while sparing one life may lead criminals to think that they can get away with crime, thus leading to more crime and more victims.  Angelo knows the law and understands the law.

In a plot twist that only Shakespeare could invent, all the theorizing about the law and morality by Angelo and Isabella, amounts to nothing.  It turns out that Angelo himself has been guilty of a serious moral failure – refusing to marry Mariana because her dowry was lost.  Caught in this legal/moral trap, and with some trickery (he sleeps with Mariana ‘disguised’ as Isabella), all’s well that ends well.  Isabella marries the Duke despite her rock-ribbed chastity and exaggerated sense of propriety.

So, everyone learned their lesson – Angelo: “People who live in glass houses, etc.”; Isabella, life is not so black and white; the Duke, have a more consistent rule – but the lesson for us is about the rule of law and its complexities; and Shakespeare has done a masterful job of using these themes within a comedic/dramatic format.  We are left a little disappointed at the end of the play, however.  Mariana marries someone who has been a little shit; Isabella was indeed spared from promiscuity by the Duke, but does she owe him marriage for that favor?  Angelo gets no banishment, public censure, or legal action – which he should to let the public know his errors; and the Duke goes back to being ruler, and given his character, Vienna will soon be as unruly as it was before.  

No less than my hero Harold Bloom lists Measure for Measure along with Macbeth as his favorite plays.  He says that Measure for Measure surpasses the four High Tragedies as ‘the masterpiece of nihilism’:

…there are no values available in Vincentio’s Vienna, since every stated or implied vision of morality, civil, or religious, is either hypocritical or irrelevant…

As I have written many times before, I am a fan of nihilism, Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, and Shakespeare’s amoral villains.  While I agree with Bloom that when the volte face of the main characters is taken into consideration, there are no consistent, recognizable values, the debate about them is what counts; and while we may well learn more about statesmanship and the rule of law from Shakespeare’s contemporary, Machiavelli.  All in all, this play leaves us unsatisfied and with an “OK….now what?” None of the characters are particularly likeable, even without their moral ambiguity.  The ending, as above, is not really consistent with the moral implications of the play.  However, like all of Shakespeare’s works, it is a tour de force – a dramatically intelligent, if not satisfyingly plotted play.

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