Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and “The Very Mercy of the Law”

Both principle and prudence are necessary if “the very mercy of the law” is to be achieved.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare depicts a warlike but chivalrous medieval kingdom disrupted from within and plundered from without by the machinations of Machiavellian statesmen. Meanwhile, Denmark’s young and talented prince, called upon by the penitent ghost of its late feudal king to set things right, fails to do so because, confused by his Wittenberg education and lacking the charity that must inspire and direct virtuous vengeance, he chooses self-indulgent murder and suicide rather than the self-overcoming generosity necessary to secure the common good. Through numerous allusions to the Socratic-Christian virtues that Hamlet neglects, Shakespeare implies that only the “faith that worketh by charity” and the other virtues can resist the assaults of Machiavellian realpolitik and restore a just and humane political order.

What would it look like for charity to prevail in this manner? Oddly enough, we find an answer in the darkest of Shakespeare’s comedies, Measure for Measure. Despite its preoccupation with the uglier side of human nature—from the careless but consequential sins of playboys, prostitutes, and pimps to the oppressive hypocrisy of puritans and the manipulative scheming of princes—this play demonstrates how a revitalized Socratic-Christianity can amend the faults of the old order without succumbing to the radical measures proposed by Machiavellian philosophy.

Christian Virtue and Practical Politics

As the play begins, Duke Vincentio finds that Vienna has fallen into a state of licentiousness whose cure has become urgent if his city is to have a future. Significantly, the city’s woes are connected to the Socratic virtues embodied by its ruler: like The Tempest’s Prospero, Vincentio’s love of philosophic studies has detached him from political affairs and allowed the vices of others to upset the political order. Unlike Prospero, however—who must lose his office and endure exile before learning to apply his wisdom for the restoration of justice—Duke Vincentio recognizes before it is too late that his virtues are a gift of heaven, which “doth with us as we with torches do, / Not light them for themselves,” but (to cite the biblical passage to which he alludes) so that their light “may shine to all that are in the house” (Mt. 5:15).

Already we find in Measure for Measure a response to Machiavelli’s accusation that Christianity, by upholding and extending the Socratic preference for contemplation over action, undermines the practical virtues necessary to build and sustain political order. Duke Vincentio’s original neglect of Vienna’s laws (and hence of the well-being of its citizens) confirms that there is some truth in Machiavelli’s accusation. In his “second sailing,” however, the Duke invokes a recognition from within the Socratic tradition that the cultivation of personal virtues is ultimately inseparable from the attempt to share them with others through both friendship and prudent and magnanimous leadership. He also invokes the Christian teaching that the love of God entails a love of neighbor—even the hostile neighbor or enemy—to whom we must “do good” if we are to be perfect “as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:43-48).

Even if the Socratic-Christian tradition possesses its own practical orientation, however, the lives and fates of both Socrates and Jesus provide grounds for skepticism. In both cases, the figure whose life is offered for imitation is depicted as possessing virtues that may seem impossible to approximate, much less replicate. And, due precisely to this disjunction between the model and the ways of men, each figure causes scandal and meets a violent death. It is no surprise, then, that in his Prince Machiavelli dismisses the Socratic and Christian “profession of good” as “imaginary” and deadly, offering us instead the “effectual truth” that virtue means doing whatever enables us to acquire and retain the objects of our desires, while emphasizing that doing so requires us to “learn to be able not to be good.”

In many respects, Duke Vincentio’s reform of Vienna may look like a re-founding of the city in accordance with Machiavellian principles. Yet a closer examination of the play’s many subtle twists and dark corners reveals that, though they are sympathetic to aspects of Machiavelli’s call for a more effectual approach to politics, its protagonist and author ultimately reject Machiavelli’s dismissal of the classical good as false and inhumane.

The Hypocrisy of the Puritan

Pretending to leave on a matter of diplomacy, the Duke entrusts the city to Angelo, a man whose puritanical principles he fully expects to shatter under the pressures of rule. Immediately, Angelo makes a futile attempt to eliminate prostitution by pulling down the city’s brothels, and cruelly decides to make an example of the hapless youth Claudio, convicted of impregnating his dowerless fiancée, by sentencing him to death. Unbeknownst to Vienna’s citizens, Duke Vincentio returns to the city disguised as a friar and watches as Angelo, his unnatural “virtues” overcome by sudden temptation, pressures the lovely Isabella to slake his lusts in exchange for her brother Claudio’s life. When Isabella, about to enter the city’s strictest convent, refuses Angelo’s advances, the Duke—still in religious garb—approaches her with a plan that eventually leads to the public exposure of Angelo’s hypocrisy, the sparing of Claudio’s life, the enforced marriage of several reluctant couples, and the Duke’s own proposal of marriage to Isabella.

It is unsurprising that many have seen in the tyrannical hypocrisy of Angelo and the sometimes strained sanctity of Isabella an outright repudiation by Shakespeare of the virtues at which these characters aim. Equally unsurprising is the impression that the Duke’s deceptions and manipulations—including not only his framing and shaming of Angelo, but also his involvement of Isabella in a “bed trick” by which she pretends to yield to Angelo’s wishes while substituting his jilted fiancée under cover of darkness—signify the Duke’s abandonment of Socratic-Christian virtue in favor of Machiavellian means. Though it is true, however, that Angelo and Isabella are flawed characters, and that the Duke falters in his classical convictions and flirts with the teachings of the infamous Florentine, the natures of these flaws and this faltering, and of the play’s comical denouement, constitute a subtle but profound defense of the classical understanding of the interrelations of law, virtue, and the common good.

Mercy as “The Top of Judgment”

As many have noted, the play’s title alludes to Christ’s admonition, “Judge not, that you may not be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Mt. 7:1-2). Equally pertinent is the statement of St. Thomas Aquinas that law, “as a rule or measure of human acts,” should—as with all measures—“be homogeneous with that which it measures.” Taken together, these statements constitute a distillation of lessons about law contained in scripture and classical philosophy. On the one hand, since law seeks the happiness of human beings, it must direct them in the practice of those virtues without which happiness is impossible. To give up on the good because it is difficult is to condemn man to a life of pointless (even if “effectual”) activity. On the other hand, given the unavoidable limitations of both governors and governed, law cannot command the instant achievement of human perfection, but must content itself with the indirect and incremental encouragement of virtue through the enforcement of rules capable of being understood and followed by the majority of citizens.

Angelo, who “scarce confesses / That his blood flows, or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone,” fails in the cultivation of personal virtue because he seeks to suppress his passions rather than habituate them to being governed by reason. His treatment of Vienna’s citizens is likewise harsh and ineffectual due to his impatience with their humanity. Escalus, an “ancient lord” whose gentler methods better reflect the genuine wisdom of classical political science, is by contrast able to bring about a real, if comically incremental, reform of the city’s most hardened criminals. Meanwhile Isabella, in pleading for her brother’s life, reminds Angelo that his own life would be forfeit if not for the mercy of Christ—“the top of judgment,” whose judgment all judges should imitate—and that, in light of this divine (and, one could add, Socratic) standard, it is her brother’s fault, not her brother himself, that ought to die (compare Ezekiel 18:23). If Isabella herself vacillates in her grasp and application of such wisdom, the fault is in her youth and inexperience rather than in the principles she espouses.

Finally, we come to the Duke, whose deception, manipulation, and seeming abuse of religious authority seem to mark him as Machiavellian, possibly with allusions to the English monarchs’ recent annexation of ecclesial authority. This reading conflicts, however, not only with the Duke’s professed motives for reforming Vienna, but also with the goal of his reforms—the curbing of moral excess and promotion of moral virtue—and even the means he is willing to employ. In taking a religious disguise, for example, Vincentio is aided by benevolent churchmen, and even when his impersonation of a priest brings him dangerously close to sacrilege—as when he hears what others may take to be sacramental confessions—he nonetheless carefully avoids the words of absolution reserved to the ordained. In two cases, the Duke considers allowing guilty men to die in furtherance of his schemes, but he clearly prefers to avoid this if possible. He balks at ordering the execution of a convicted murderer too drunk to make a good confession. When—after eschewing this “damnable” expedient—an apparent “chance” allows his plans to move forward, Vincentio attributes it to divine providence. Most tellingly, the Duke allows the success of his strategies—and his own marriage to Isabella—to hinge on her free choice to show mercy by pardoning the man she believes killed her brother.

From beginning to end, Duke Vincentio’s primary aim is to further the common good by teaching his citizens valuable lessons about the right understanding and relations of law and virtue—even while growing in his own comprehension of the same. Though willing to use (mostly) measured degrees of coercion and indirection to further these ends, and though concerned to preserve his own welfare while promoting that of the city, he proves ultimately unwilling to “do evil, that there may come good” (Rom. 3:8). All told, then, the Duke’s success suggests that the solution to ineffectual philosophy and hypocritical holiness is to be found not in an abandonment but in a renewal of such classical-Christian virtues as prudence, magnanimity, and mercy. In an age marked by vices similar to those the Duke seeks to remedy, and a pragmatism often anxious to discard objective moral principles, Measure for Measure is a reminder that both principle and prudence are necessary if “the very mercy of the law” is to be achieved.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!