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

Friday, June 22, 2012

Lessons in Governance–Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida (Updated)

Shakespeare wrote four plays about governance – Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, and Measure for Measure.  In Julius Caesar a political and moral question is raised – should one eliminate a potential tyrant.  Not an actual tyrant who must be deposed, but a political leader who shows signs and traits of nascent tyranny and who must be neutered before he he can accede to power and cause the deaths of thousands.  In Measure for Measure, the interim Duke of Vienna, Lord Angelo, institutes draconian rule whereby even the slightest infraction will incur severe punishment.  He argues that while his rule may be arbitrary, it will certainly prevent thousands of crimes in the future.  In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses is the voice of reason, moderation, and good governance; and Shakespeare elaborates his and others’ perspectives on rule.  In Coriolanus he explores the many sides of democratic rule – the famous fickle mob, the arrogant patrician warrior and the debate about the degree to which popular representation should prevail – a debate which was renewed by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the embryonic days of America.

In fact all of what I call Shakespeare’s ‘governance’ plays have resonance today.  We have come full circle  to the days of Julius Caesar and are developing more and more sophisticated ways to predict crimes before they occur.  Experiments on zero tolerance policies on crime continue today, and while not as harsh and arbitrary as Lord Angelo’s are certainly relevant.  

While of course his Histories and many of his other works dealt with the rule of kings, they were plays more about accession to power, and the familiar devious plotting on behalf of wives, sons, daughters, and courtesans to attain the throne rather than on governance per se.  As Jan Kott has noted, if all of Shakespeare’s Histories were laid out end to end, we would be able to see an endless cycle of the same intents, strategies, conspiracies, exiles, and murders to gain access to, retain and defend, and extend power and empire.   These plays were not so much about how to govern, they were about power and how to get it.

There were some kings, like Richard II and Henry VI who reflected on the nature of kingship, but these ruminations were more philosophical and less to do about governance.  Richard understands the right of kings: “Not all the water in the rough, rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king”; but understands also how that does not protect him from the assaults of others who claim a legitimate right to the throne.  In this passage, Richard realizes that he is caught in what Kott has called the Grand Mechanism of history:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

Richard throughout the play shares his thoughts about the loneliness and exile of kingship, and how he wishes he were a beggar, a solitary, poor, but noble man:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

At the same time Richard ruled like most kings – using his authority immoderately resulting in his offenses to Bolingbroke who usurps the throne from him.  Being a philosophical king with a sense of perspective does not mean you govern wisely or well.

Henry VI is a good but weak king, whose human philosophy cannot survive the onslaught of the Grand Mechanism.  Here Henry wonders why he is not loved or respected, for he has treated his subjects properly and correctly:

That's not my fear; my meed hath got me fame:
I have not stopp'd mine ears to their demands,
Nor posted off their suits with slow delays;
My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allay'd their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears;
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppress'd them with great subsidies.
Nor forward of revenge, though they much err'd:
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace:
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

He is wrong, of course.  Not only do strong leaders survive palace coups or make successful assaults on the throne, they are loved by their subjects because of their strength and perceived valor.

Henry IV also reflects on the nature of kingship, and what it means to be a great king, but he does not talk about governance, only characteristics and attributes.  Talking about his predecessor, Richard II, Henry says to his son:

Heard, not regarded; seen, but with such eyes,
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze
Such as is bent on sunlike majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes,
But rather drowsed and hung their eyelids down (1H, III.ii.76-81)

In other words, Henry asserts that Richard led to his own ruin by placing himself in the public eye too often, by trying to sway his subjects into believing in his divinity. Henry during his own reign constantly disavowed the divine right of kings, and was ultimately challenged by his own son, Prince Hal, the future Henry V.

“There is your crown/And He that wears the crown immortally/Long guard it as yours” (2H, IV.iii.271-273). The “He” referenced by Prince Henry is God. The perpetuity of God, according to Prince Henry, is what provides protection to the kingship and Henry IV’s disregard of this is what has caused him to have a tumultuous rule instead of the peaceful rule he had hoped to establish. The recognition of God’s natural relationship with the kingship will be important aspect of Prince Henry’s (hereinafter Henry V) rule of England (Danielle Marler).

Henry IV was a military ruler and a strong one, and he had none of the philosophical qualms affecting either his predecessor Richard II or his eventual successor Henry VI.  However, he, like many past and future kings became corrupt and precipitated a civil war:

Once he was crowned king, Henry IV abruptly turned his back on the values he had once cherished and instead behaved in a fashion similar to the corrupt Richard. Henry IV raised taxes throughout the kingdom, beheaded all of Richard’s loyal deputies, and disregarded Richard’s true successor to the crown, the Earl of March, altogether (1H, IV.iii.87-98)! The rejection of divinity and the inability to promote any of the eternity-values that Kantorowicz outlines ensure that England will be beset with violence and instability. (Danielle Marler)

Much of 1 and 2 Henry IV is about Henry’s battles in the civil war.  His only reflection on kingship comes in his troubled relationship with his son.  Because his son has seemingly been a layabout and ne’er-do-well, he is concerned what kind of a king he will make; but he is more concerned about how his son will help him in his current struggles to retain the throne.

There is little about either kingship or governance in Henry V.  Henry is one of England’s most revered kings because battlefield valor and success against the French at Agincourt.

In summary, then, Shakespeare in his Histories talked less about governance per se and more about how kings attain, retain, and lose the throne.  If he meditates at all on aspects of governance, he does it through the philosophical musings of Richard II and Henry VI or the debate on principle, such as on the divine right of kings.  In Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and the other plays mentioned above, he enters into the world of morality and ethics in politics and rule.  Aside from the continuing and irreversible conflicts over power, what constitutes right action?

While there is no doubt that both Brutus is an ambitious man and ultimately fights Mark Antony for the right to rule Rome, he is – despite the sarcasm in Mark Antony’s peroration over Caesar’s body – a noble man.  He wants to do the right thing.  He is convinced that Caesar has the potential to become a tyrant.  He has committed no crime against the state nor against any one noble or common; but his is showing some of the traits of his forbearers. Prior to Julius Caesar and the first Triumvirate, Rome had been a republic, but had suffered at the hands of tyrants such as Sulla:

During the era of the late Republic, Rome suffered through a reign of terror. Terror's tool was the proscription list, by which large numbers of important, wealthy people, and often senators, were killed; their property, confiscated. Sulla, Roman dictator at the time, instigated this carnage:

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city. Many, too, were killed to gratify private hatreds, although they had no relations with Sulla, but he gave his consent in order to gratify his adherents. At last one of the younger men, Caius Metellus, made bold to ask Sulla in the senate what end there was to be of these evils, and how far he would proceed before they might expect such doings to cease. "We do not ask thee," he said, "to free from punishment those whom thou hast determined to slay, but to free from suspense those whom thou hast determined to save." Plutarch - Life of Sulla

Brutus knows this and like his fellow nobles is sensitive to the rise of one man in the political arena.  Cassius, like Iago in Othello, quietly but persuasively plants seeds of doubts in Brutus’ mind.  While never specifying any crime – for Caesar has not committed any -  he adds rumor to innuendo and gradually persuades Brutus that Caesar must be killed. There have been omens, Caesar has fits, he was a weak swimmer, his statues have become garlanded – all innocent observations that Cassius brilliantly uses to infect Brutus’ mind.  Brutus says:

It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown'd:
How that might change his nature, there's the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?--that;--
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway'd
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg
Which, hatch'd, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Brutus only concludes Caesar’s guilt in the most indirect and circular way.  It is commonly known, says Brutus above, that the very state of lowliness is the ladder to ambition and power, and few men can resist the climb.  Worse, when the climber reaches the top, he never again looks down from whence he came or to those who assisted in his ascent.  He continues to look upward, to even more power and glory.  While this is certainly true of most tyrants, it may not be true at all for Caesar.  In fact, in all of Caesar’s few lines in the play, he says nothing to even suggest that he has such ambitions in mind.

Brutus joins Cassius and other conspirators, and they murder Julius Caesar.

Was there anything right or noble about Brutus’ actions? Was he acting properly, given recent history.  Was it a moral failing to kill one man to avoid the slaughter of thousands – even though the killings were only possible, not even probable?

First, although habeas corpus predated the Magna Carta in 1215, Shakespeare knew that English kings ignored it completely.  Henry VIII who ruled just before Shakespeare’s time threw Anne Boleyn to the wolves on trumped up charges of incest and adultery, and did away with Cromwell, Thomas More, Fisher, and others on allegations of treason with nothing conclusively proved.   Head were lopped off at the discretion of the king.  Guilt could be established by omen, extreme trials and corporal punishment, and innuendo. 

Therefore, it might not have been that far a leap to jump to conclusions about what might happen, as Shakespeare wrote about Brutus and Caesar.  In fact, we have come full circle from the days before the Magna Carta and are developing increasingly sophisticated ways of catching criminals before they commit a crime; and the United States since 9/11 has incarcerated these potential criminals (terrorists) to prevent them from doing harm.  What Brutus was doing was to base a judgment on the best information he had, and to conclude that it would be far better to eliminate a potential threat (Caesar) from doing inestimable harm.  Given recent history, the belief in signs and omens, and an objective and correct understanding of the nature of tyranny, was Brutus in fact right in what he did?

Of course, Shakespeare in his Histories has more than amply shown that most people act only on self-interest, and therefore Brutus, however much he might have framed his actions within a moral context, simply wanted Caesar out of the way so that he could ascend to power.

The point is not the answer to the question, but the fact that Shakespeare dealt with an important issue of governance and leadership that is often overlooked – ‘pre-crime’.

Coriolanus is perhaps the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, and it deals with events following the uprising and deposition of Tarquin the Proud and the establishment of the first Roman Republic.  The historical setting is similar to that of Julius Caesar and the plot also involves the question of possible tyranny and arrogation of power.  Caius Marcius, later named Coriolanus, is, like Julius Caesar, a revered military hero who is put forth by certain Senators to be a consul, one of the highest positions in the Republic.  To do so he must be approved by the Senate – which happens easily – and then to be approved by the people, now powerful under a more democratic form of government within the Republic.  The intermediaries are tribunes, supposedly advocates and spokesmen for the people, but drawn from the same patrician class as senators.

Coriolanus, is decidedly anti-democratic.  It is only with an elite cadre of governors can Rome be ruled properly. In this passage he most eloquently and objectively talks about patrician rule, and the passage is not infected with the virulence and intemperate show of disgust he has of the mob:

No, take more:
What may be sworn by, both divine and human,
Seal what I end withal! This double worship,
Where one part does disdain with cause, the other
Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom,
Cannot conclude but by the yea and no
Of general ignorance,--it must omit
Real necessities, and give way the while
To unstable slightness: purpose so barr'd, it follows,
Nothing is done to purpose. Therefore, beseech you,--
You that will be less fearful than discreet,
That love the fundamental part of state
More than you doubt the change on't, that prefer
A noble life before a long, and wish
To jump a body with a dangerous physic
That's sure of death without it, at once pluck out
The multitudinous tongue; let them not lick
The sweet which is their poison: your dishonour
Mangles true judgment and bereaves the state
Of that integrity which should become't,
Not having the power to do the good it would,
For the in which doth control't.(III.i)

Here he is condemning not only the ignorance of popular will, but the inherent problems of two-sided rule.  There is no way for Rome to be properly rule “Where one part does disdain with cause, the other/Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom/Cannot conclude but by the yea an no of general ignorance…”

This debate over elite vs. popular rule has been repeated throughout history; was one of the features of the discussions in the early days of our republic; and is alive and well today.  Who cannot but be appalled at the persistent low levels of popular understanding of the issues and the ease by which demagogic politicians are able to manipulate popular opinion because of that ignorance. Of course, the idea of elite or patrician rule assumes a nobility of spirit, an ambition only for the good of the people, and a selfless dedication to well-being; and history has shown that while such representatives may have existed for brief periods of time, their noble sentiments quickly turn venal and self-serving.  If Americans do envisage a better way of governance, one with selfless, intelligent, and committed men (and now women) ruling the many, they think of the Founding Fathers who, although they had differences of opinion, all fell into this political hero category; and in fact, we might well be better off with the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and Franklin at the helm.

Coriolanus, however, goes beyond logic and a rational assessment of political order.  He hates the mob.  He has a visceral contempt for them:

He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it.
Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another? What's their seeking? (I.i)

Despite his venom, Coriolanus is right.  The ‘mob’ has always been fickle – no less today than in Rome or Elizabethan England.  One day’s hero is the next one’s villain.  People, according to Coriolanus go looking for ways to tear down the good and noble rather than support them.  No serious man of politics can possibly swim a straight course towards right and just decisions if he can be consumed by the mob at any minute. 

Shakespeare’s most biting parody of the mob is in 3 Henry VI in the character of Jack Cade who elevates the ‘values’ of illiteracy, ignorance, and brutishness in his rule.  Shakespeare was no fan of the mob and has characterized its fickleness in many of his plays.  The mob is easily swayed in Julius Caesar, first by Brutus, then by Mark Antony, and there is nothing in Shakespeare’s work that shows that he was all for patrician rule.

The play is also interesting in the way it deals with another aspect of governance in the new republic – the workings of the three levels of rule: the Senate and their consuls; the tribunes; and the people.  While the tribunes have no decisive say in matters of state, they were important intermediaries between magistrates (consuls) and the people:

Tribunes were charged with protection of lives and property of plebians; their persons were inviolable (sacrosanct); had power of veto (Lat. "I forbid") over elections, laws, decrees of the senate, and the acts of all other magistrates (except dictator); convened tribal assembly and elicited plebiscites, which after 287 B.C. (lex Hortensia) had force of law.

Shakespeare presented the tribunes in this play as manipulative, power-hungry men who manipulated and used the fickle will of the common man to destroy Coriolanus.  They use a legitimate grievance of the people – the alleged stockpiling of grain by the government for use in future wars and the consequent rise in market prices – as a means of discrediting Coriolanus who has defended the practice.  More importantly, the tribunes invoke the same argument that Brutus used in Julius Caesar – that anyone who holds such anti-democratic sentiments and has such hostility for the common man, could easily become a tyrant; so better now to kill him than run the risk of future usurpation of popular rule:

Did you perceive
He did solicit you in free contempt
When he did need your loves, and do you think
That his contempt shall not be bruising to you,
When he hath power to crush? Why, had your bodies
No heart among you? or had you tongues to cry
Against the rectorship of judgment? (Brutus II.iii)

This scenario is no less true in today’s American Republic. While the Senate is a more deliberative, considerate body (in principle), the House of Representatives is filled with local-interest attack dogs, elected every two years and therefore running for office from the day they take their seats.  They will do anything to get elected, it seems, and are little different from the tribunes depicted in Coriolanus.

In Othello, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony, Shakespeare has created military heroes who cannot quite make the transition to civilian life.  Othello cannot translate his strategic battlefield genius to the bedroom or the polite society of Venice.  Mark Antony, a similar hero, has trouble navigating the civil wars in which Rome has become embroiled because of his obsession with Cleopatra.  Julius Caesar is beginning to let the cheers and adulation of him as a soldier go to his head, referring to himself as the royal “we” and not objecting to the many statues constructed in his honor.  Coriolanus has not only defeated the tyrant Tarquin, but has been a much decorated, and much-wounded soldier who has proven himself on the battlefield many times.  What could be more qualifying as a civil leader than heroism, patriotism, and valor?  And since few Romans could possibly understand the rigors of war, why should they have any say in his ascension?

Another aspect of governance explored in Coriolanus is that of public relations – alive and well even in Ancient Rome (and Elizabethan England). Both Menenius – a Polonius-like friend,supporter, and adviser to Coriolanus – and more importantly Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, urge him to go to the people and plead his case for becoming consul.  It won’t take much, they both advise, since the mob is ignorant and easily led and seduced by flattery and a silver tongue, so why not do it?

Coriolanus agrees, but then decides that he simply cannot do it.  It offends his very nature to show off his wounds and declare love for the mob he hates.  He is honest above all, and to do what he is asked will damage the integrity of his values and his spirit:

Well, I must do't:
Away, my disposition, and possess me
Some harlot's spirit! my throat of war be turn'd,
Which quired with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch, or the virgin voice
That babies lulls asleep! the smiles of knaves
Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys' tears take up
The glasses of my sight! a beggar's tongue
Make motion through my lips, and my arm'd knees,
Who bow'd but in my stirrup, bend like his
That hath received an alms! I will not do't,
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth
And by my body's action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness. (III.ii)

His mother wins out in the end.  Coriolanus goes before the people, and through the baiting of the tribunes loses all composure and speaks his mind – once again, an unveiled contempt for the masses.  He is thrown out of Rome.

Few of us today find this kind of obstinate honesty familiar.  Flattery, chicanery, political manipulation are the coins of the realm; but the tragedy of Coriolanus in the mind of Shakespeare was his absolute conviction of the rightness of his vision.  He might have been arrogant – and that arrogance betrayed him – but he was at least honest and true to himself.  Republics need more like him, rather than fewer.

There are two familiar subtexts in the drama of Coriolanus.  The first is the familiar plotting and subterfuge of the palace and the constant struggle for supremacy.  The tribunes only want to see Coriolanus out of the way so that they can have a clear path to power.  The Senate wants to see Coriolanus succeed because they know that a military hero – like our Eisenhower – will make a very attractive member of their august body.  The Volscians are delighted that their former enemy wants to join forces with them; but are quick to chop off his head when he gets too much credit and in the end capitulates to the demands of his mother.

The other subtext is family and powerful mothers.  Volumnia has no apologies to make to Margaret, Constance, Dionyza, or Tamora.  She is the demanding, acquisitive mother.  Worse, she manipulates her own son and convinces him not to sack Rome, thus gaining power and prominence for saving the city.  At the same time she condemns him to death at the hands of the Volscians for capitulating.

Measure for Measure is not usually thought of as a political play, since the more powerful and dramatic element is the chaste and impeccably moral character of Isabella who is put into a Sophie’s Choice bind when Interim Duke Angelo agrees to free her brother from his death sentence if she will sleep with him.  The play, however, is based on a principle of governance enunciated by Angelo – that it is better to harshly enforce a law now, even if there may be innocents caught in the net, than to let crime increase.  This philosophy, and the argument opposing it are clearly enunciated in the following passage:

ANGELO: Be you content, fair maid;
It is the law, not I condemn your brother:
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him: he must die tomorrow.

ISABELLA To-morrow! O, that's sudden! Spare him, spare him!
He's not prepared for death. Even for our kitchens
We kill the fowl of season: shall we serve heaven
With less respect than we do minister
To our gross selves? Good, good my lord, bethink you;
Who is it that hath died for this offence?
There's many have committed it.

ANGELO The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept:
Those many had not dared to do that evil,
If the first that did the edict infringe
Had answer'd for his deed: now 'tis awake
Takes note of what is done; and, like a prophet,
Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils,
Either new, or by remissness new-conceived,
And so in progress to be hatch'd and born,
Are now to have no successive degrees,
But, ere they live, to end.

I show [pity] 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. 

Angelo argues that it is the law that is harsh, not he; and that the law had simply lain dormant for so long that its application now seems unjust.  Laws are made for a reason, says Angelo, to keep order; and if society is to remain intact and integral, laws must be enforced. Bloom considers Measure for Measure the most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s works. “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” (The Invention of the Human).  This may be true, but it does not detract from Angelo’s consistent views of the law.  Angelo, in fact, is not acting entirely on his own, for Duke Vincentio has already enunciated the importance of the law.  He speaks generally and does not dwell on the issues of prostitution or illicit sex, but his views are clear nevertheless and provide the context for Angelo’s determination:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock'd than fear'd; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum. (I.ii)

Angelo reiterates this theoretical approach to the law shortly thereafter:

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. (II.i)

The case is made early for the rigorous application of the law; and Shakespeare then shows how this act affects everyone – those enforcing the law, those arrested because of it, and those with relationships to both. 

Even the person who has suffered most because of Angelo understands his position on the law:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern'd his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died:
For Angelo,
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way: thoughts are no subjects;
Intents but merely thoughts. (V.i)

Isabella’s brother, Claudio, condemned to death because of Angelo’s draconian law, also understands the deputy’s position as he explains in this exchange with Lucio:

Thus can the demigod Authority
Make us pay down for our offence by weight
The words of heaven; on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just.
Re-enter LUCIO and two Gentlemen
Why, how now, Claudio! whence comes this restraint?
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 (I.ii)

Yet, other characters disagree – the punishment in no way fits the crime.  Lucio says:

Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the
rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a
man! Would the duke that is absent have done this?
Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a
hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing
a thousand: he had some feeling of the sport: he
knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.(III.ii)

A number of critics have commented that there are no strong women in this play whereas there are in all others.  Isabella and Mariana, they say, are totally manipulated by men – unlike Rosalind, Beatrice, Constance, Dionyza, Tamora and others who always have the upper hand.  While it is true that Isabella and Mariana do what the Duke tells them, and both are forced into marriage (Mariana is marrying a moral reprobate, Angelo; and Isabella must give up her religious vocation to marry the rather suspect Duke), Isabella gives Angelo a very good run for his money.  This, in fact is what attracts her to Angelo – he is less concerned with a woman’s looks than her intelligence and spirit.  In this passage, she understands the implications of Angelo’s harsh application of the law.  While it may in fact deter crime, it is likely to encourage misuse of law enforcement

Angelo says that he most shows pity when he shows justice. In other words, justice today will ensure that no pity will be needed in the future, for when laws are enforced, crime will decline, fewer people will be punished, and fewer tears will be spent over them; but Isabella retorts that enforcing the law unjustly, even though it may deter crime, is itself unjust.  The case against her brother – a death sentence for having committed what Angelo feels is fornication (this all started because he wanted to ‘clean up’ Vienna) – is so egregiously unfair that it not only subverts the cause of justice, but unleashes ignorant and unbridled misuse of power.  The reader will recognize the LAPD in this passage:

ISABELLA So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer's. O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne'er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal (II.ii)

Isabella is an interesting character not only because she is in fact a strong woman who stands up to the Duke, but because she represents – in exaggerated form – moral rectitude and the importance of intuition and feeling in the writing and application of the law.  In other words, although she may understand why Angelo has acted the way he did, he should at least look into his heart:

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,
That skins the vice o' the top. Go to your bosom;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault: if it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life. (II.ii)

The law may be just, but is it justice to condemn this particular man the way Angelo has?

She does not admit that her refusal to save her brother, placing the protection of her chastity above his life – is just as suspect.  She, like Angelo, is setting forth a law – Isabella shall not unwillingly give up her chastity – which simply cannot be broken, no matter what the consequences.  Therefore, despite her valiant attempts to change Angelo’s mind, she is as unattractive a character as he is for her recalcitrance and self-righteousness – perhaps even more unattractive.  Her unattractiveness increases at the end of the play when she gives up the very sanctimonious pretense she has maintained throughout the play – her chastity – when she agrees to marry the Duke.  In a sense she has submitted to a manipulative man when she refused to do so when it could have saved the life of her brother.

Isabella also remarks: “O, fie, fie, fie!/Thy sin’s not accidental, but a trade;/Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd/’Tis best that thou diest quickly” (III.i).  This is another legal point – should the accused’s persona history have any bearing on the crime in question?  Although our current legal system says ‘No’, there is always pressure by the prosecution to allow evidence that the alleged crime is not the first time he/she committed it.

The play goes on to explore the conflicts between law, morality, intent, and human failings.  Angelo only late in the play begins to understand that his lecherous proposition to Isabella was worse than the ‘crime’ committed by Claudio, but only reluctantly: 

This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant
And dull to all proceedings. A deflower'd maid!
And by an eminent body that enforced
The law against it! But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no;
For my authority bears of a credent bulk,
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have lived,
Save that riotous youth, with dangerous sense,
Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge,
By so receiving a dishonour'd life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had lived!
A lack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right: we would, and we would not. (IV.iv)

He is still not repentant, for he is calculating whether Isabella will bring suit against him; and he rationalizes Claudio’s death by saying that if he had lived, he surely would have taken revenge on him.  The final couplet suggests that he really does understand what he has done – he has fallen from grace and must suffer the consequences. 

Angelo is an interesting character because he embodies all the aspects of governance.  First, he bases his actions on precedent – laws exist that prohibit prostitution, sex before marriage, and adultery, but they have not been enforced for over a decade.  Second, he feels that his particular application of the law – which in other hands might be less rigorous – is the right application.  By being so inflexible and harsh, he will discourage further ‘crime’.  Third, he understands Isabella’s rational appeals, but rejects them.  There is no precedent for his particular interpretation of the law, she rightly says; but that has no relevance because if a law is on the books and right, it must be enforced, even for the first time. 

He also understands the concept of mercy, another important element of the law and governance, and does not dismiss it out of hand, for he understands that the concept of mercy has to do with extenuating circumstances.  These may be valid, he argues, but not in this case.  In another lively exchange with the smart Isabella, he insists that there is no room for compassion within the law, but she retorts:

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself,
That skins the vice o' the top. Go to your bosom;
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault: if it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life. (II.ii)

Fourth, he understands the question about the moral foundations of the law – if a law is based on a questionable premise, should it be enforced.  The Duke let existing laws on prostitution go unenforced for almost 20 years because he felt that they were unreasonable. As Pompey the bawd (procurer) says to Escalus, a confidant of Angelo:

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. (II.i)

Angelo disagrees.  The law is based on a good foundation – prostitution and illicit sex are bad for the body politic – and therefore not only must be enforced, but enforced so coercively that they will cease to exist. 

Pompey and his friends suggest that Angelo not only has never had sex, but that he was born out of some demonic sexless union.  He has ice in his veins, has no idea about passion or desire, and therefore his attitude towards the law is ignorant and unfounded.

Angelo embodies the paradox of lawmakers and law enforcers – even they are subject to the very temptations that they are forbidding.  He also raises another important legal/moral question.  When he finds himself attracted to Isabella who has played the coquette at the suggestion of Lucio to better win him over, he says: “What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?/The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” (II.ii).  This question of course persists to this day – there is a fine line between entrapment and ‘gotcha’ and courts adjudicate on the issue all the time.

Shakespeare comments on a number of other legal/moral issues in the play.  For example, the Duke without compunction says that one prisoner who is derelict and without repentance deserves to die, and therefore cutting off his head in place of Claudio’s is just, thus raising the legal issue of repentance (parole and sometimes even sentencing is influenced by contrition). He also raises the question of ‘an eye for an eye’ – had Claudio actually been executed, should Angelo have been put to death as well for an ‘unlawful’ application of justice?

Many critics have noted that the play ends quickly, and despite the complexity and seriousness of the first two-thirds, the resolution is pure Comedy.  Shakespeare, they suggest, may have realized that there was too much complexity for one play and chose to defer the resolution of  legal, moral, ethical, and other issues for another play.  Everyone is forgiven in the play as in The Tempest, and one wonders why Shakespeare chose to abruptly bring the complexities of character, circumstance, and philosophy to a close. 

Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s approach was always to leave the audience with questions.  We are never sure why Othello murdered Desdemona, or why Hamlet dallied; or whether Brutus was indeed an honorable man.  In these Tragedies, however, there was a logical resolution.  We know how the plays ended the way they did and and why they did based on antecedent action; but are left to wonder why?  If Measure for Measure were a tragedy, then Claudio would have been put to death, Angelo would either have been wracked with doubt and guilt like Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello or push on like Richard III.  Would Isabella have been satisfied with her moral rectitude, refusing the advances of Angelo thus causing the death of her brother?  Or would she too suffer from guilt and regret?  If this were a tragedy, there would be no absent Duke going in and out of disguise checking in on the administration of Angelo and weighing in only at the very end. He would not play with Isabella as he does, cruelly keeping her from the truth about her brother’s fate.

So in that sense the play raises fascinating and continually relevant questions, but leaves them up in the air and closes with the traditional Comedic marriages.  Marriage in this problem play (neither Comedy, Tragedy, nor Romance) is used as a quasi-legal enforcement.  Angelo is forced to marry his formerly betrothed as is Lucio obliged to marry the woman he got pregnant.  All’s well that ends well, it seems.

Shakespeare does not answer this or other questions, for the play evolves quickly into a Comedy mode.  Angelo is smitten by the beautiful, principled Isabella, and decides to win her through a deviousness based on her own principles – he will free her brother if she sleeps with him, Angelo.  As in all Comedies, this one ends well, double, triple trickery wins the day, and everyone lives happily ever after.  It ends with a reprise of the theme of justice, and Isabella wins the day through arguing another refined point of law – it is not intent that we should punish, but action:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn'd,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern'd his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died:
For Angelo,
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perish'd by the way: thoughts are no subjects;
Intents but merely thoughts. (V.i)

Troilus and Cressida is also a very political play, perhaps even more than Coriolanus, and it is the character of Ulysses who is the spokesman for Shakespeare’s convictions about the right way to run an empire – with order, discipline, authority, and of course patrician rule.  In this passage Ulysses says that order is at the very nature of the universe – everything has its place, superior and inferior, primary and secondary; and without this fixed scheme of things, chaos would result.  The problem is not with Troy, Achilles says, referring to the implacable enemy of Greece in the interminable Trojan war, but with Greece itself:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad:

But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?

What would happen if order were taken away, Achilles asks?

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general's disdain'd
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.

Achilles in his role of political philosopher opines that Achilles does not understand how wars are fought, and that despite his valor and ability to win battles will ultimately lose wars.  War, says Achilles, is not just a matter of the soldiers on the battlefield, but the brains behind their movements:

They tax our policy, and call it cowardice,
Count wisdom as no member of the war,
Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
But that of hand: the still and mental parts,
That do contrive how many hands shall strike,
When fitness calls them on, and know by measure
Of their observant toil the enemies' weight,--
Why, this hath not a finger's dignity:
They call this bed-work, mappery, closet-war;
So that the ram that batters down the wall,
For the great swing and rudeness of his poise,
They place before his hand that made the engine,
Or those that with the fineness of their souls
By reason guide his execution.

Ulysses understands how victory can only be achieved if the various civil, strategic, and martial elements of engagement are in alignment.  If Greece’s civil institutions are in disarray, order has been disassembled, and chaos reigns; if there is no appreciation of and respect paid to those who plan and devise strategies for war, then valor alone cannot win wars.

The play is interesting because the Greeks and Trojans are pitted not just as opposing armies, but opposing philosophies.  While the Greeks, embodying the principles of Ulysses, favor reason and rationality, the Trojans value valor, patriotism, and emotional conviction. Here is Troilus, the philosopher-lover-warrior of Troy enunciating the Trojan position:

You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest;
You fur your gloves with reason. Here are
your reasons:
You know an enemy intends you harm;
You know a sword employ'd is perilous,
And reason flies the object of all harm:
Who marvels then, when Helenus beholds
A Grecian and his sword, if he do set
The very wings of reason to his heels
And fly like chidden Mercury from Jove,
Or like a star disorb'd? Nay, if we talk of reason,
Let's shut our gates and sleep: manhood and honour
Should have hare-hearts, would they but fat
their thoughts
With this cramm'd reason: reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject. (II.ii)

Hector counters this argument with an appeal for reason.  He confronts Troilus and says that his “blood is so madly hot that no discourse of reason, nor fear of bad success in a bad cause can qualify the same”; and “The reasons you allege do more conduce/To the hot passion of distempered blood/Than to make up a free determination/Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge/Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice/Of any true decision”.

Hector insists that to “persist in doing wrong extenuates not wrong/But makes it more heavy”; but Troilus has the last word:

Why, there you touch'd the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us;
For, I presume, brave Hector would not lose
So rich advantage of a promised glory
As smiles upon the forehead of this action
For the wide world's revenue.(II.ii)

Cressida shows Troilus to be an idealistic fool, however.  All he really wants out of their love is romantic valor; and it is more important for her to remain faithful than for him to love her fully.  This personal failing echoes his idealism concerning military valor and national pride.

In one of the best passages of the play, Ulysses reflects on the fallacy of appearances and the vanity of those who ignore time.  Know that your time will come and go quickly, says Ulysses.  Be neither fooled by those around you nor by a mistaken view of your importance.  The underlying order of a world of order is the passage of time:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path…

Though less than yours in past, must o'ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch'd, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.

O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time…
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what not stirs.

The play continues with the double plots of the war and the relationship between Troilus and Cressida, and both end badly for the Trojans.  Troilus finds out that his idealized Cressida was a ‘loose woman’, quickly jumping into bed with the enemy; and that valor alone cannot assure victory.  The play ends with Troilus vowing revenge on Greece, but the last laugh is by Pandarus. There is no revenge for Troilus and no justice for Hector, only sadness in Troy and the final speech by Pandarus the pimp.

A goodly medicine for my aching bones! O world!
world! world! thus is the poor agent despised!
O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set
a-work, and how ill requited! why should our
endeavour be so loved and the performance so loathed?

Despite arguments of valor by the Trojans and high political philosophy on the part of the Greeks, nothing is resolved.  The Grand Mechanism continues to roll on and what is left is the pimp, his women, syphilis, and the sweating cure.

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