Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure explores everything from the balance between justice and mercy, to lust and all of the unavoidable sins of human nature. Shakespeare’s work mainly focuses on justice and mercy, two concepts that although seemingly universal, are presented in different manners in this work. In the Renaissance era, the time period in which this play takes place, many of the usual punishments that were accepted would be seen as cruel and harsh today. Shakespeare uses all of the characters, but mostly uses the character of Isabella to shed light on the various aspects of justice and mercy alike. Along with this, I would even go as far as to say that the ways that justice and mercy are presented within this work, as well as the ways in which they go about achieving them, are completely different than they are today. I feel that this is primarily due to the role of women during this time. These facts became quite evident to me after reading the work and analyzing the role of Isabella’s character, especially her role in the fifth act.
Shortly into the fifth act, all of the characters gather near the city gate to welcome the Duke back home. When the Duke arrives, he sings Angelo and Escalus’ praises because he had heard nothing but good things of them since his departure. This is when Isabella steps up and declares:
Justice, O royal duke. Vail your regard
Upon a wronged, I would fain have said, a maid.
O worthy prince, dishonor not your eye
By throwing it on any other object till you have heard me in my true complaint
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice! (Shakespeare V.i.22-27).
In this instance, Isabella is simply stating that the Duke should look past Angelo’s “good looks” and “good ruling” because she has been wronged by him in the worst way. Ultimately telling him that before he decides to sing Angelo’s praises for doing such a magnificent job, he should consider everything that she has to say first, by allowing her to plead her case and give her the justice that she deserves. In this moment, Isabella is clearly speaking as a woman who was wronged and insulted, more emotionally and mentally than anything, by Angelo.
Shakespeare uses two juxtaposing views of justice in his work in order to explore the concepts of justice with his audience. His audience, which primarily included people in Vienna, needed to deal with concepts that were familiar to them in order to fully understand the concept of the play. The fact that the concepts of justice and mercy are such universal ideas, make them more appealing to the modern reader as well. Shakespeare primarily writes this play on the need for a balance between justice and mercy, and he uses the characters to present different means of carrying out these concepts. Isabella’s character was mainly used to portray different aspects of both justice and mercy. She was at the time studying be a part of a convent and was generallyв and understandably in her situationв a very traditional person. When confronted by Angelo and asked to “give herself up to him” on behalf of her brother, she isn’t sure what to do. She knows that what Claudio did was awfully wrong, but it was still her brother after all.
Angelo’s idea of justice within this work is quite contrary to Isabella’s. His definition of justice is very impersonal and essentially lacks any form of human feeling. His view on justice can be summarized by his words in as far back as Act 2 when he states to Isabella, “Be you content, fair maid. It is the law, not I, condemn your bother” (Shakespeare II.ii.104-105). In using these words, he is fundamentally removing himself from any blame that surrounds Claudio’s forthcoming death. He then attempts to coerce Isabella into sleeping with him in order to save her brother’s lifeв telling her that it is merely an act of charity.
Isabella continuously struggles throughout the work with her own beliefs, especially with regard to the concepts of justice and mercy. However, upon completing the play, it was clear to see that most of the time, she chose mercy as the greater good. Isabella asks Angelo to look at himself and consider what would happen if his and Claudio’s roles had been reversed. In asking Angelo to have mercy on her brother, she is showing a kind of justice that is based on mercy and human feelings, as opposed to just giving people what they want without any concern to compassion. If we take time to sit and think about the conflicts that are in our lives when it comes to our beliefs and our way of living, we may begin to even have some sympathy for Angelo, and this causes us to understand Isabella’s decision at the end of Act 5, when she asks for mercy on his behalf. As Isabella is kneeling down beside Mariana, she states, “Look, if it please you, on this man condemned as if my brother lived. I partly think a due sincerity governed his deeds till he did look on me” (Shakespeare V.i.509-512). At this moment, I believe that Isabella recognized that Angelo is only human, and he is susceptible to the same faults that her brother as well as the citizens of Vienna were. It also seems in this moment, that Isabella chose the need for balancing justice and mercy. Whether she did this to “save” her own conscience, or because it was the right thing to do, we may never know, but as it reads it seems that she did it because she had a history of being a just human being.
In the Renaissance era, it was essentially the ruler’s choice to decide when to initiate violence and practice deception. It didn’t matter how “wicked” or immoral these acts were, as long as the peace of the city was preserved, and his share of glory was maximized. Along with this, it was also expected for the women to simply go along with whatever the men said because the role of women was definitely not as significant as it is today. In modern times, mercy is “compassion, kindness or forgiveness shown especially to someone a person has power over” and justice is “fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made” (Relevant Magazine). Social media today has been a huge proponent in allowing “ordinary citizens” to obtain justice and mercy. A simple hashtag can be used on any social platform and in a matter of minutes, a name can be all over the internet. Today, people all around the world are able to attend rallies and sign pledges that can bring awareness to certain events that are happening locally and even globally. Regarding the role of women, we are capable of voicing our opinions and not expected to go along with what someone tells us about whatever situation we are in. We, as women are now able to have a platform, when in the Renaissance era this was not the case.
Measure for Measure considers the difference between: justice and mercy, justice based exclusively on mercy, and of course the balance we are looking forв the happy medium in between. This work demonstrates what a justice system that does not show mercy to human error can do the people who live by. In the end, this work promotes mercy and willpower rather than an “eye for eye” system of justice. I realize now how significant the differences are between their “justice system” and ours. You have the right to plead your case and your fate isn’t just decided by a King or Duke, it is decided by a jury of your peers.