Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Measure for Measure

What is justice? That’s one of the oldest and most-discussed questions in the Great Books tradition. Measure for Measure is one of the best pieces I know that explores the meaning of justice. Socrates asked the question 2500 years ago and Shakespeare takes up the same theme in this play. It begins when the Duke of Venice puts a little test on his cousin Angelo. The Duke tells everyone that he’s going to leave Venice and put Angelo in charge for awhile. Angelo is still young and untested so the Duke wants someone older and wiser to keep an eye on things too. The older and wiser counselor is a man named Escalus. The Duke trusts Escalus and tells him that The nature of our people, Our city's institutions, and the terms For common justice, you're as pregnant in As art and practise hath enriched any That we remember. There is our commission, From which we would not have you warp… Escalus knows the Venetians well and is familiar with their laws. And the Venetians are a pretty bawdy bunch. There are bars and brothels all over Venice and its surrounding suburbs. There are laws on the books against public drunkenness, adultery and prostitution but these laws haven’t been enforced for a whole generation; nearly twenty years. The Duke’s problem is this: how can he rein in a rowdy bunch of people like the Venetians. He’s the one who has been lax enforcing the laws. He also knows that Angelo has a reputation for being severe and hopes somehow that Angelo’s severity will bring the Venetians to their senses. Then the Duke can take over again. Is this justice? With this background we’re ready to explore the theme of justice. For starters, is it a good idea for the Duke to put young Angelo through such a stringent test? Wouldn’t it be better to let him work his way up through the political ranks before bearing such heavy responsibilities? This question is still valid in America today. Every few years Americans decide we want to throw the bums out. Fair enough. But do we really want to put people into office who have no experience in governing? Is this justice? Even Angelo himself protests and says Now, good my lord, Let there be some more test made of my metal, Before so noble and so great a figure Be stamp'd upon it. And Angelo does, in fact, fail. His failure, as the Duke predicted, results from enforcing the laws too severely. He condemns Claudio to death for getting a girl pregnant. The girl is really his fiancé and they were already married in all but a strictly technical sense. But that’s all it takes for Angelo to prosecute. The irony is that Angelo ends up falling in love with Claudio’s sister, Isabella. Isabella is all set to become a nun and she comes to Angelo to plead for mercy. Before long the straight-laced Angelo is propositioning her: ANGELO: 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? Like any good novice nun, Isabella refuses. ISABELLA: Sir, believe this, I had rather give my body than my soul… Claudio is her brother and he’s important to Isabella. But her chastity is even more important. When push comes to shove, chastity wins out: ANGELO: Then must your brother die. ISABELLA: And 'twere the cheaper way: Better it were a brother died at once, Than that a sister, by redeeming him, Should die for ever…Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die: More than our brother is our chastity. This is noble of Isabel but the idea of justice is still left hanging at the end of the play. Claudio is set free but Angelo is punished by having to marry a former girlfriend. (Why would she want a guy like that anyway?) Is this justice? Meanwhile, a guy named Lucio is punished by having to marry a prostitute he’s gotten pregnant. Is this justice? Mistress Overdone (the madam of a brothel) is thrown in jail even though most local folks like her business. Is this justice? Isabella refuses to give her body in order to save her brother but she might do it in order to become a Duchess. Are all these justice? Yes, they are. At least they’re a type of justice. Everyone may not be happy and everyone may not think it’s fair. But this is the Duke’s brand of justice.


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