William Shakespeare
Measure for Measure
The Error of Desperate Measures

By Ian Mugford

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. (I.iii.19-21)

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 (I.iii.26-9)


When looked at in depth, justice is a very interesting subject. What is justice? The answer could change drastically from one individual to the next. Depending on the time and place a person is raised, his or her ethnic or religious background, the social rank or status of the individual, and many other factors, the meaning of ‘justice’ could vary widely. What is just to me, a young Canadian adult male in the twenty-first century, would astound someone born in the third or fourth century in Rome, the sixteenth or seventeenth century in Vienna, or perhaps even my contemporaries of the Islamic faith.

Despite the variations, I believe that one thing must remain constant in order for the notion of justice to exist: there must be a sense of conformity to a principle without variation or exception. When speaking of legal matters, if a law exists, it must always be enforced. The person guilty of breaking the law must then be punished in accordance with a pre-set, agreed-upon, sentence without bias. If a law remains dormant for a long period of time without prosecution of offenders, it should either be abolished or, if it is to be reinstated it should be publicly announced that this is the case and what the punishment for breaking the law would entail. Then, if an example is to be made, an offender who breaks the law after the announcement should be punished to the extent which was announced.

In Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, we travel to a city which has laws in place which have not been enforced for nineteen years. Vicentio, the duke of Vienna, sees the fact that the laws are being widely ignored, even mocked, and wishes this problem to be corrected. As he professes to Friar Thomas:

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. (I.iii.19-21)

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 (I.iii.26-9)

Realizing that he is much too mild and timid a man to suddenly begin enforcing these laws, he enlists the help of a ruthless, ‘dreadful,’ man by the name of Angelo. Not wanting to admit to his subjects that he hasn’t what it takes to enforce these laws, he lies to Lord Angelo stating that he is going to Poland and gives him full authority in his absence. He does this in the hope that Angelo will enforce the laws and Vienna will be a better city as a result:

I have deliver'd to Lord Angelo,
A man of stricture and firm abstinence,
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me travell'd to Poland. (I.iii.11-14)

Angelo does exactly what The Duke expected of him. Very shortly after The Duke’s ‘departure’ Angelo has a man by the name of Claudio arrested for lechery and sentences him to death. He does this despite the fact that Claudio is engaged to the girl in question and the sexual relations were completely consensual. To justify his actions and the upholding of his ruling, Angelo states that they “must not make a scarecrow of the law” (II.i.1), meaning that if they were to waver in their decision there would be no bringing order to the city. Not enforcing the law again this time would only further the original issue which The Duke is trying to address.

Escalus, Angelo’s advisor, understands and respects Angelo’s intentions but he believes he is enforcing the law rather harshly, and against someone who doesn’t necessarily deserve to be made an example. To help make his point he compares their circumstances to pruning a tree:

Let us be keen, and rather cut a little,
Than fall, and bruise to death. Alas, this gentleman
Whom I would save” (II.i.5-7)

In other words, they should prune, or discipline, the ‘tree,’ or Claudio, rather than cut it down.

He continues by questioning whether Angelo himself has ever made a similar error in his own life: “Whether you had not sometime in your life / Err'd in this point which now you censure him” (II.i.14-15). Angelo admits to having temptations in the past but is adamant that the law must now be enforced without error or bias to anyone. He continues to state that if he were to be caught in a similar act of lechery that he too should be put to death:

For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die. (II.i.28-32)

Moments later, Elbow, The Duke’s constable, enters with Froth and Pompey whom have both been arrested for working in a brothel under Mistress Overdone. Angelo questions them and during the proceedings grows tired of listening to them, stating: “This will last out a night in Russia, / When nights are longest there” (II.i.222-3). He decides that he will allow Escalus, whom he knows to be more lenient than he, to resolve the dispute.

Now, in view of the importance put on Claudio’s arrest and sentence, how could it be that Angelo allows Escalus to preside over this matter? If he is so adamant about having justice restored to Vienna, without exception, then surely he should pass judgement on this case himself, despite his being daunted by the possible length of the proceedings.

Nevertheless he does allow Escalus to rule in the case and Escalus simply lets them off with a warning, thinking it to be unfair to not give them a second chance. To Froth he says: “Get you gone, and let me hear no more of you,” (II.i.184-185) and to Pompey:

I advise you, let me not find you before me again upon any
Complaint whatsoever, no, not for dwelling where you do; If I do,
Pompey, I shall beat you to your tent, and prove a shrewd Caesar
To you. (II.i.219-22)

To let Froth and Pompey off with a warning for working in an establishment devoted to prostitution while enforcing a death penalty on a man who had consensual relations with his fiancé is ludicrous. It’s true that the sentence wasn’t handed out by Angelo himself, but surely he would have been aware of Escalus's judgement. How could he allow this judgement to be made and then enforce the death penalty on Claudio for a lesser offence? How can this be considered justice?

Meanwhile, the news of Claudio’s imminent execution has reached his sister, Isabella, who, ironically, has devoted her life to chastity and joined a convent with the aspiration of becoming a nun. She leaves the convent to see Angelo so that she can plead for her brother’s life. Through her arguments it is obvious that she abhors Claudio’s actions and believes that he should be punished but believes the punishment set forth is much too severe: “O just but severe law!” (II.ii.43).

Her initial attempts would seem futile as Angelo continually brushes her off but, on the advice of Lucio, she manages to soften him with her femininity. It is probably because of her innocence that she doesn’t realize that she was actually seducing him. Nevertheless, Angelo is enticed by Isabella’s approaches and grows filled with feelings of lust, which he believes to be love, towards her.

It also becomes evident that he has never had a feeling similar to this: “Even till now, / When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how” (II.ii.190-191). This gives us some insight as to how he is able to govern so harshly over Claudio, now understanding how he [Claudio] would be able to give into such sinful desires.

With his new-found understanding, you would think that Angelo would pardon Claudio. Instead, these desires lead him to offer Isabella a deal which contradicts everything he has done in the play thus far. He offers her brother to be freed in exchange for her virginity: “You must lay down the treasures of your body / To this supposed, or else to let him suffer” (II.iv.96-97). Here, we have an offer to absolve one act of lechery by committing another.

Isabella, of course, refuses the proposition made by Angelo and she sets off to the prison to see her brother. There, she informs him that Angelo’s mind is made up and the only thing which could prevent his execution is an unthinkable act of sin. After some banter, Claudio manages to get the full details of Angelo’s offer. Initially, he agrees with Isabella’s decision until the realization that this would mean he is to die the following day sets in. He changes his mind and attempts to convince her to give into Angelo’s proposal:

Sweet sister, let me live:
What sin you do to save a brother's life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue (III.i.134-7)

The Duke, disguised as The Friar, overhears this conversation causing him to interject and propose an idea of his own which will save Claudio’s life, protect Isabella’s virtue, and also punish Angelo for proposing such a deal. His idea is to have Isabella agree to Angelo’s proposal and then replace Isabella with Mariana, a former fiancé of Angelo whom he refused to marry after her dowry was lost at sea. Then, after Mariana and Angelo have slept together, force Angelo to marry Mariana on that basis. Here, we have The Duke, the rightful ruler of Vienna, plotting against the man he put in charge in his ‘absence,’ and using his subjects as part of his plot.

Although I’m sure it was unintentional, the actions of The Duke will inevitably cause a furthering of the problem which he was initially trying to address. By undermining the authority he has given to Lord Angelo and plotting to have Lord Angelo’s orders reversed, he’s making a statement that not only does he believe that the law should not be enforced, as he’s working to have Claudio absolved from any punishment at all, but he’s also stating that any rulings set by men in his absence are not going to be carried out. Declaring that he, himself, doesn’t support the law could easily lead to little respect for the law in his presence and, moreover, by making a statement that the men he puts in charge in his absences have virtually no authority he’s paving a road which could easily lead to complete anarchy in the future.

The plan set forth by The Duke is carried out. However, despite Isabella upholding her end of the bargain, (as far as Angelo knows), Angelo doesn’t pardon Claudio’s execution. In his defence he claims that he feared Claudio would revolt against him if he were released: “He should have lived, / Save that riotous youth, with dangerous sense, / Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge” (IV.vi.27-28). He demands that Claudio be executed and his head be delivered to him the following day.

The Duke, still as The Friar, hears this news and formulates another plan. He tells the provost to let both Claudio and Barnadine, a fellow prisoner to be executed that day, live. They will then shave the head of a man who has died the night prior and send it to Angelo claiming it to be Claudio’s. The Provost, the man who runs the prison and carries out Angelo’s orders, agrees to this plan and to keep Claudio hidden for several days. This not only furthers the undermining of Angelo’s authority, but also makes a statement that religious authority is more important than political authority since, as far as The Provost is concerned, this order was given by a friar, a friar which, until recently, none of these people have ever met.

Regardless of the Friar’s position, the order is obeyed by the Provost and Claudio remains alive. The Duke, as himself, sends a letter to Angelo and Escalus instructing them to meet him at the city gates. He also sends out word that everyone who feels that they have been wronged by Angelo, in The Duke’s absence, should also be in attendance.

At the gates, The Duke addresses Isabella and she reveals what Angelo has done. The Duke, despite knowing the truth, decides to continue the charade by pretending not to believe her and sending her to prison as a mad woman:

If she be mad, as I believe no other,
Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense,
Such a dependency of thing on thing,
As e'er I heard in madness. (V.i.60-3)

He eventually agrees to hear Isabella’s story and finally admits to believing her after Mariana comes forth to tell that she is the woman who actually slept with Angelo. Angelo finally admits what he has done, which The Duke knew all along, and finally asks for the same ruling to be made against him as he made against Claudio. The Duke, again, continues the charade by pretending to sentence him to death for the murder of Claudio, knowing very well that Claudio is still alive:

The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
An Angelo for Claudio, death for death! (V.i.399-401)

Eventually, he reveals that Claudio is alive and that he was the friar. He sentences Angelo to marry Mariana for his indiscretions, sentences Lucio to marry a prostitute, with whom he confessed to having relations earlier in the play, and proposes to Isabella.

The Duke and Angelo both had the intention of rectifying the situation in Vienna by having the laws enforced, but instead managed to further the problem: Claudio, who was supposed to have been made an example of to show the people that the laws were effective, wasn’t punished at all. Also, Angelo and Lucio are merely sentenced to marry the women that they have slept with. This was evidently the punishment already being enforced for the past nineteen years.

So we see that any one man cannot ensure that justice is served. Individuals have their weaknesses which are going to cause flaws in the way a city is run. This will inevitably lead to justice not being properly served. We see in The Duke that he is much too mild mannered of a man to enforce the law properly. Angelo is quite the opposite but he falls into his temptations which also lead to corruption. With either man choosing which laws to enforce or how to enforce them we see that justice isn’t served.

This is why I suggest that all laws, big or small, must be enforced and the guilty be punished in accordance with a pre-set, agreed upon sentence without bias. You can’t simply choose which laws to enforce, against whom, or when to enforce them. This will inevitably lead to anarchy.

Laws are made to ensure justice and order. If they are not maintained regularly, and without fault, then there is a chance that the order is not sustained and justice will not prevail. As we have seen in Shakespeare’s play, desperate times do not necessarily call for desperate measures, or at least measures which are put into place without proper thought and planning.

© Ian Mugford, January 2008
Email the author

Ian MugfordName: Ian Mugford (More often referred to as Mugz)
D.O.B.: December 5th, 1985
Education: Currently, Ian is in his third year of his Bachelor of Arts program at Cape Breton University with his key focus within the fields of English literature and history. Upon completion, Ian intends to enroll in the University of Maine with aspirations of obtaining his Bachelor of Education degree with future plans of obtaining a PH.D. within a field of literature.
Current Profession: Ian currently works as a technical support agent for the company of iBahn (A hotel based internet provider).
Hobbies: Aside from writing, Ian enjoys various activities including sports, music, partaking in social gatherings amongst friends, and spending time with his family (Father - Eric, Mother - Sabina, Brother - Evan, Sister-In-Law - Candice, Girlfriend - Lauren, and his two nieces which are also his God Daughters - Jessica Sabina-Lynn and Emma Sarah Noelle). Ian also has a great fascination with animals and loves pets. His dog, Maya, is a pure breaded basenji and is with him on most occasions.
Favourite Writers/Inspirations: Ian enjoys reading such authors as James Joyce, Walt Whitman, E.M. Forster, Edgar Allen Poe, Graham Greene, Stephen King, Morley Callaghan, Ernest Hemmingway and most notably Shakespeare (Ian has current intentions of writing his thesis paper on Shakespearean writing)
Other Favourites: Musical Artist - Eminem. Song - The Path (West Avenue). Actor - Will Ferrell; Adam Sandler; Vince Vaughn. Show - House; Criss Angel Cartoon - Family Guy Movie - Remember the Titans; Click. Colour - Blue. Literary Work - Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, (Modern adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet & Othello)
Pet Peeves: Narrow-minded views and opinions Not finishing an intelligent conversation or debate.
Life's Ambition: To see the world

Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy