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"'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth": reconsidering political theology in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

Abstract: How to govern a state in a Christian way is a question central to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. In the play, Duke Vincentio is often thought to demonstrate the importance of tempering justice with mercy, in contrast with the rigid legalism of his deputy Angelo. This essay argues instead that like Angelo and the Puritans of Shakespeare's day, the Duke's governance conflates spiritual with temporal law and personal sin with public crime. Only the novice Isabella perceives both the similarity and consequences of their thinking and rejects it in favor of a more traditional political theology that refuses to make Christ's spiritual teachings into legal requirements.


Civil government's relationship to the Christian faith of its officers is central to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The play's opening lines are spoken by a Duke to his fellow statesman: "Of government the properties to unfold" he begins, making this, as Debora Shuger observes, both "the only Shakespeare play to begin with [an] overt thematic statement" and "to have an (equally thematic) biblical title" (1). (1) This pairing of government and gospel is at the heart of the difficulty many interpreters have had with the play, and has as its locus the political theology of not only Duke Vincentio and his deputy Lord Angelo, but the novice Isabella. The opinion one forms of the Duke's governance in particular tends to act as a sort of weather vane that predicts how one will react to the other two characters. Those who find it to be legitimate and compassionate and to yield wise and humane judgments usually see Angelo and his actions as puritanically self-righteous and malicious. Isabella is by this token a student of the Duke, who, by instructing her in the primary Christian imperative of mercy, rescues her from a blunt legalism similar to that of Angelo. (2) On the other hand, those who find the Duke's methods suspect for their secrecy and underhandedness see Angelo less as a personal moral Puritan than a sort of modern tyrant, ruthless in his desire for total power and control over his subjects. The two thus form complementary portraits of authoritarian political power that subverts opposition to it. In this scheme, Isabella becomes something of a figure of resistance to the state, rejecting its claim to total power by asserting herself as an individual and a woman. At play's end, she is seen to be ambivalent toward the Duke and incredulous at his concluding offer of marriage. (3)

What is rare in criticism is belief in the Duke's sincere benignity coupled with a questioning of his general approach to governance. Likewise, little of virtue is ever found in Angelo's initially earnest political philosophy. Isabella, finally, only ever ends up philosophically opposed to a suspect, not to a benevolent, Duke. This rearrangement of more typical critical scenarios, though, can better explain the political and theological positions these characters take in the play. By sharing English radical reformers' strong disregard for the nature of political and religious office and the traditional division between the functions of church and state, the Duke actually bases his governance on the same principles as did they and Angelo. Though a kinder, gentler one, he is a philosophical and theological Puritan nonetheless, attempting to deal with the personal spiritual issues of his subjects by means of the state's public law. Accordingly, only Isabella's initial political opinion, expressed in her first discussion with Angelo, is contiguous with that of the Duke. By play's end, she rejects the Duke's equations of private intent with public act and of sin with crime, and affirms the wisdom of a more moderate and traditional political theology.


The various conceptions in post-Reformation England of the role of church and state and of priest and king are rooted in the medieval political understanding of the dual realms of spiritual and temporal authority. While explanations of this duality developed over hundreds of years and practical applications of it varied widely over the middle ages, it remained the fundamental paradigm of political thinkers well into the early modern period. (4) Its central metaphor, that of "two swords" appointed to regulate two realms, was ultimately derived from Christ's declaration at the Last Supper that the two swords which his disciples possessed were "enough" or sufficient (Luke 22:38). Early interpreters of this passage found an analogue in the epistles of St. Paul, who refers on one hand to the "word of God" as the "sword of the spirit" (Eph. 6:17), and on the other to the secular government's power as a divinely-appointed "sword" (Rom. 13:4). Together, these swords would later come to be seen as images of the two great God-ordained powers in the world: the church and the state. Each possessed authority over the complementary but independent spiritual and temporal spheres, respectively. Within this arrangement, the primary concern of the church was the salus animae ("salvation of the soul") of the individual person. Its spiritual care was administered primarily through the priest's offering of the sacraments, especially those of baptism, the Eucharist, and confession, and later, through ecclesiastical courts. All were seen as spiritually restorative and were concerned primarily with the regeneration of the individual person rather than the larger good of society. The bonum commune ("common good") was the state's concern, which it secured by providing for "outward necessities" and maintaining "public order among the Christian people entrusted to [its] care" (Markus 102).

Deborah Shuger has recently made significant investigation into the political and theological ideas at play in Measure for Measure. The thesis of her book, Political Theology in Shakespeare's England, is that in post-Reformation England, this medieval understanding of church and state was challenged by alternative visions of Christian theocracy. She roots these new political ideals in Reformation theology, which "rejected the papal church's claim to be the earthly kingdom of Christ, and abolished or demoted all the traditional loci where the sacred had penetrated the temporal order: anchorites, relics, shrines, images, holy water, consecrated Host" (43). Being "in search of those loci where the sacred remained or might be reconstituted," Protestant theology transferred sacrality from the church, its officers, and its sacraments to the state, thus extending jurisdiction of the latter beyond its previous temporal and public bounds into realms spiritual and personal. Whether this sacral locus was primarily to be found in the sovereign, who was now also head of the church, or in the wider commonwealth, as more radical Reformers would insist, it became "crucially important that [a] ruler be morally good" if he were to justly occupy his office (62). While never indifferent to a ruler's moral character, the medievals had held that authority derived primarily from the grace inherent in the office (whether of priest or king). Reformers instead located this authority in his moral character: a good ruler must be a good man. Shuger argues that both moderate and radical Reformers shared the belief that the medieval division between spiritual and temporal tended "to uncouple man's laws from God's laws and thus to wedge apart what mattered to the state from what ultimately and eternally matters"; that "in God's eyes ... all that counts is our secret thoughts" (107). On one hand, this belief encouraged high Christian royalists like James I to have his court system dabble in replacing the state's traditionally penal and retributive criminal justice with a version of the church's penitential and restorative approach to sin, aiming not simply at the maintenance of the common good but the spiritual salvation of individual criminals. The Puritan impulse, on the other hand, was to call for the state to treat previously personal (and thus ecclesiastical) categories of morality as its own judicial responsibility. In this view, the state must work to secure not simply temporal and material goods but "transcendent goods such as virtue and holiness; virtue and holiness, by aiming at the common good, secure the state" (24). A central result of their "near-total identification of the common good with eternal goods" were their infamous attempts to regulate sexuality, which had previously been the jurisdiction of the often more lenient church courts (24). (5)

Shuger then reads Measure for Measure as a story that explores these two competing Reformed understandings. (6) She makes an essential distinction between the Puritans and Angelo on one hand, and James I and the Duke on the other. Angelo, she says, personifies the Puritan concern for building a "holy commonwealth" by having the state strictly enforce personal morality. His fault is a "hypocritical severity" which refuses to acknowledge his own sinfulness and relate it to his governance (68). He passes judgment on personal sins with a strictness that (if we keep Christ's "measure for measure" dictum in mind) implies his own perfection. His attempt to bring the state into the private life of individuals results only in legal condemnation, not spiritual restoration. In contrast, the Duke rejects the state's traditional punitive justice. Symbolized by his donning of a friar's robe, he adopts the sacramental and penitential methods of the church in order to bring about not simply justice but the repentance and restoration of his guilty subjects. Shuger concludes that there is a "fundamental opposition between ... the Duke and his Deputy" (130-31). "The Duke's version of Christian governance could hardly be more different ... from Angelo's" because in the former's judgments, "the soteriological and pastoral aims of Christian justice simply replace the penal sentences of the law" in which the latter deals (131-32). "Measure for Measure" she concludes, "reflects on the post-Reformation crossover of the sacred from ecclesial to temporal polity."


Shuger's analysis of Measure for Measure's political and theological backdrop is admirably thorough in setting out the terms of the play's political discussion, and I will lean heavily on these in the following discussion. I would like to propose, though, that a more systematic reading of the play than she offers reveals the political action and dialogue of the play questioning not only Angelo's governance but that of the Duke, thereby revealing a close link between them that Shuger misses. Angelo and the Duke share a common tenet of radical Reformational thought, that Scriptural principles historically deemed personal and spiritual matters should instead be applied to state law. While Shuger is right to see a radical difference between the sentences each man derives from this principle, she doesn't attend to this shared politico-theological basis from which their judgments issue.

Looking for what radical reformer Martin Bucer called an ever "fuller acceptance and reestablishment of the Kingdom of Christ in [the] realm" English Puritans wanted the state governed by the edicts not simply of common and regnal law, but of Scripture, blurring the traditional line between state and canon law present in medieval thought (175). Like the Puritans, Angelo strictly enforces the Old Testament's sexual law code as a state statute and refuses to admit the difference between it and more usual civil crimes. Yet far from opposing him, the Duke repeatedly expresses his agreement with Angelo's harsh prosecution of this law, declaring that lechery "is too general a vice, and severity must cure it" and that Angelo, who "puts transgression to 't / ... does well in 't" (3.1.359-63). Shuger does acknowledge their similarity to each other (and indeed to all "the good people in this play") on the principle of sexual regulation, and her strong distinction between them is not based on this (35). Yet the Duke applies not simply Old Testament communal law to his Vienna, but New Testament spiritual principle. He identifies Angelo's essential failing to be not "hypocritical severity" but only hypocrisy. When the Provost, for example, calls Angelo a "bitter deputy,' the Duke quickly corrects him:
 Not so, not so; his life is paralleled
 Even with the stroke and line of his great justice.

 Were he mealed with that
 Which he corrects, then he were tyrannous,
 But this being so, he's just. (4.2.78-85)

Angelo's severity is thus a "great justice" that would only be "tyrannous" if he were himself guilty of the sin he judges. N. W. Bawcutt distills the philosophy underlying the Duke's idea as a "personal or reflexive view of the law" in which, "when faced with a prisoner the judge must look into himself" to determine if he is able (because innocent of the crime in question) to pass sentence (94). The Duke thus pays homage to Christ's declaration that is the source of Shakespeare's title: "with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matt. 7:2). He summarizes this Scriptural philosophy in the soliloquy that closes Act 3:
 He who the sword of heaven will bear
 Should be as holy as severe;
 Pattern in himself to know,
 Grace to stand, and virtue, go;
 More nor less to others paying
 Than by self-offences weighing. (3.1.515-20)

The central qualifier he gives here of a ruler's severity is his own holiness: so long as he has a "pattern" of virtue "within himself," his judgments will be just. Moreover, he refers to the king as bearing the "sword of heaven," contrary to the traditional delineation of the church's heavenly sword and the state's earthly. What the Duke puts forward is not simply a new goal for state justice (restoration instead of punishment), but a whole new politico-theological basis for its operation. The principle he leans on here is certainly more conducive to mercy than punishment, but Bawcutt observes what many critics, over-impressed by the Duke's compassionate justice, miss:
 A sentence made by due process of law on adequate grounds could
 hardly be appealed against on the grounds that the judge himself
 had subsequently been discovered to be guilty of the offence for
 which he had sentenced the prisoner. The response would surely be
 that the judge himself must now stand trial, but his verdict need
 not be overturned. (94)

Where Angelo enforces a scriptural law that was at least originally meant to be publicly enforced, the Duke codifies here an exclusively spiritual principle from the Sermon on the Mount that, when adopted by the state, effectively makes judiciary pronouncements impossible. The Duke focuses exclusively on Angelo's moral character and makes no mention of the objective reality of whether Angelo has given Claudio the sentence demanded by law for the crime, nor of whether he considered the circumstances of the accused in issuing judgment--the latter of which would have come up in any court, civil or ecclesiastical. Moreover, he sees no authority inherent in the office of prince or magistrate itself that makes the holder of it worthy or able to do the work: a public ruler is to be judged capable solely on his private virtue.

Ironically, Angelo begins the play with a far more traditional understanding of political office and of what validates the judiciary's decisions. In his conversation with Angelo that begins the debate about government in earnest, Escalus tries to win mercy for Claudio by delicately asking Angelo to consider:
 That in the working of your own affections,
 Had time cohered with place, or place with wishing,
 Or that the resolute acting of your blood
 Could have attained the effect of your own purpose,
 Whether you had not sometime in your life
 Erred in this point, which now you censure him,
 And pulled the law upon you. (2.1.10-16)

Angelo quickly and reasonably rejects the basis of Escalus' petition--that he allow consideration of his own moral weakness to moderate his judgment-by declaring, "'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall" (17-18). He goes on to assert that even if he were guilty of a similar crime, his ability to judge Claudio would not be affected by it:
 I not deny
 The jury passing on the prisoner's life
 May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
 Guiltier than him they try...

 You may not extenuate his offense
 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. (18-30)

Just as the guilt of an individual juror does not nullify a jury's verdict, Angelo argues that a judge's fitness does not depend on his own moral innocence, but, as the medievals saw it, on the legitimacy of the office he holds and the laws he enforces. As Bawcutt points out, "most normal systems of law operate on principles closer to Angelo's than the Duke's" (94).

Isabella's understanding of the state and its laws changes and develops over the course of the play. She shares with both the Duke and Angelo a strong belief in the seriousness of sexual sin and the state's responsibility to punish it:
 There is a vice that most I do abhor,
 And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
 For which I would not plead, but that I must,
 For which I must not plead, but that I am
 At war 'twixt will and will not. (2.2.29-33)

This opening statement to Angelo when she first pleads for Claudio's life shows her to be very uncomfortable with her role as suitor for a criminal, and fearful of being thought to condone so serious a crime. We have already seen Isabella's alacrity for the strict discipline of monastic life when she declares to her abbess that, far from desiring "farther privileges" as a nun, she speaks as one "wishing a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of St Clare"--an order already notable for its rigor (1.4.1-5). Part of what has motivated her to become a nun might well be, then, a repulsion for the corruption of Viennese society that the Duke's unwillingness to prosecute sexual crimes has exacerbated. Her initial reluctance to plead toward Claudio would then seem all the more logical: his is exactly the sort of moral laxity she is trying to escape.

Interestingly, her fierce moral convictions on the subject initially result in a political philosophy that, like the Duke's, locates judicial validity in the personal character of the officer, not his office. She pleads with Angelo to look with Christian eyes upon her brother's sin, declaring that "not the king's crown, nor the deputed sword, / The marshal's truncheon, nor the judge's robe"--all things proper to and symbolic of the state's exercise of justice--"become them with one half so good a grace / As mercy does"--that thing especially required of the individual Christian (60-63). She urges this principle of personal law most potently when she asks Angelo to consider where he would be if Christ, who is "the top of judgement" had not "Found out the remedy" for sin, but instead "should / But judge you as you are" (2.2.76-78). Her final request to Angelo summarizes her thinking:
 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. (138-43)

Though the law's punishment of Claudio's vice is proper and just, she says, the judge ought to mitigate that law to the degree that he finds within himself like passions--a position identical to that of the Duke.

The logical result of this religiously-inflected understanding is explicitly revealed by Isabella in a way that remains only implicit with the Duke. When Angelo refuses to incorporate estimations of his own sinfulness into his judgment but insists on maintaining an impersonal exercise of justice, Isabella decries both him and the law: "O, it is excellent / To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant," accusing him of tyranny for doing what the law demands and gives him power to do (108-10). Lever is right to see in this an unwitting "scorn of authority" (Nix) which Angelo will recall as such when he later observes, "You seemed of late to make the law a tyrant" (2.4.115). Political philosopher Barbara Tovey also detects in Isabella's position a subtle antinomianism, suggesting that like those of the Duke, "all the arguments Isabella presents are based upon principles that, if consistently carried through, would make any system of legal justice impossible" (70). Indeed, preventing his followers from judging one another may well be the intent of Christ's principle that they first consider their own sinfulness. A parallel text that Shakespeare seems also to have in mind here is Christ's reinterpretation of the Decalogue to condemn not only the obvious crimes of a few but the hidden intentions of most:

Ye have heard that it was said unto them of the old time, Thou shalt not kill: for whosoever killeth shall be culpable of judgement. But I say unto you, whosoever is angry with his brother unadvisedly, shall be culpable of judgment.... Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Matt. 5:21-2, 27-8)

Like the injunction to "judge not," these equations of lust with adultery and hatred with murder seem meant to show that no one is innocent of the thoughts and passions that motivate the worst crimes, even if one has not actually committed them. But if Isabella, and likewise the Duke, is going to insist that a magistrate judge with the personal commands of Christ as an arbiter, there can hardly be a sentence for crimes. Anyone, then, who attempts to pronounce such will be guilty of the greatest crime, hypocrisy.

This position, curiously enough, Angelo will come to adopt as Isabella's argument becomes to him "Such sense that my sense breeds with it" (2.2.145). After she leaves and he wonders at his new-realized passion for her, he rebukes himself for his previous approach to the law: "O let her brother live! / Thieves for their robbery have authority / When judges steal themselves" (178-80). From his initial insistence that the person of the magistrate ought to be irrelevant to justice, he comes onside with Isabella and the Duke, believing that a judge's authority to judge is wholly dependent on his personal integrity. He confirms this in his second meeting with Isabella when he likens the begetting of illegitimate children to murder:
 It were as good
 To pardon him that hath from nature stolen [i.e. killed]
 A man already made, as to remit
 Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
 In stamps that are forbid. (2.4.42-6)

In words that recall Christ's comparison of lust with adultery, Angelo equates a lesser and more personal sin with a greater and criminal offence. Though he obviously does not live by it in blackmailing Isabella, adopting this personal and spiritual ethic makes him more closely resemble the Duke, who applies a similar personal principle to civil magistrates.

By their second meeting, though, Isabella also has changed her understanding. Where before her initial nervous caution before Angelo quickly gave way to an equally nervous animation, she is in this scene much more calm and clear-headed. She responds to Angelo's comparison of bastards with murder victims not with the agreement we might have expected, but by suggesting a subtle but essential distinction that Angelo misses: "'Tis set down so in heaven, but not in earth" (2.4.50). Though God may make no distinction between secret and open sins, Isabella here points out that a ruler of this world must. In keeping with late medieval political tradition, Isabella allows temporal states a law code different from the one under which devout individual Christians ought to live. St. Thomas Aquinas had insisted that a state should "not forbid all vices from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices ... that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained" (67). State law "does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous.... Otherwise, these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils" (68). This is why, he concludes, "human law falls short of eternal law," a conclusion he derives from St. Augustine: "The law which is framed for the government of political communities allows and leaves unpunished many things punished by divine providence" (68). So God will indeed judge the lustful man with the adulterer, but, as Isabella perceives, this spiritual justice is not "set down ... in earth," where only a basic level of virtue can reasonably be demanded of everyone in society. While Angelo had previously operated under this assumption, Isabella is the first one in the play to link this approach to the larger notion of the division between the "two swords" of the temporal state and spiritual church. In this spirit, she recants her earlier equation of magistrates with tyrants, asking pardon of Angelo and explaining that "it oft falls out / To have what we would have, we speak not what we mean" (118-19). This understanding, which had for centuries been a fundamental principle of Christian political thought, is what Isabella will develop in the play's concluding judgment scene.


After sketching for us the philosophical positions of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella, Shakespeare gives much of Acts 3 and 4 to the Duke's attempts to offer spiritual care to his subjects. He brings to the priestly role he takes on his belief that personal character legitimates political office, thinking it adequate simply to ask Friar Thomas to "supply me with the habit and instruct me / How I may formally in person bear / Like a true friar" (1.3.46-7). (7) With these outward symbols of the office, he plans to "behold [Angelo's] sway" and "as 'twere a brother of your order, / Visit both prince and people" (43-5). That he means "visit" in a distinctly pastoral sense soon becomes apparent as he hears confessions, offers deathbed counsel, and attempts to offer last rites. He demonstrates no qualms about taking up tasks proper to those ordained by the church, but seems to believe that his good intent and personal virtue are all the authority he needs. Yet the Friar-Duke's overall approach to sacerdotal ministry and the result of each sacramental encounter he has call into question the ability of one whose office is political and public to effect personal change. Quite simply, his spiritual work is tainted with political methodology. His language and assumptions remain tellingly juridical, even in their often sacramental form: upon meeting Julietta in the prison, he offers to "teach you how you shall arraign your conscience / And try your penitence, if it be sound / Or hollowly put on" (2.3.21-23, emphasis mine). To all of his subsequent questioning about her sleeping with Claudio she humbly responds, "I do confess it, and repent it, father" (29), yet the Duke rather clumsily continues to lecture her about the need to repent sincerely. Julietta finally interrupts him, restating plainly that she has indeed done just that: "I do repent me as it is an evil, / And take the shame with joy" (34-35). In contrast, historian Peter Marshall cites several sixteenth-century manuals that instruct a priest "not to interrupt the penitent in the course of his confession ... or to register disapproval of the sins about which he was being told?' They were also to "comfort the penitent by reminding him that Christ died for our sins" (10). Here, though, the Friar-Duke's counsel does nothing for the already-contrite Julietta, and only leaves him looking awkward and out of his element.

When he then approaches Claudio, the Duke's failing is less related to his judicial habits of thought than to general pastoral ineptitude. Claudio is in a state of repentance similar to Julietta's: he has earlier admitted sleeping with her to be sin, and though he is shocked at the severity of Angelo's chosen punishment, he admits that "even still, 'tis just" (1.2.122). When the disguised Duke asks him what hope he has for receiving pardon, Claudio's concise response balances a natural desire for life with humble acceptance of his fate: "I've hope to live, and am prepared to die" (3.1.4). Yet the Friar-Duke then begins trying to talk him out of a fear of death that Claudio has shown no indication of having. He claims that in being "absolute for death[,] either death or life / Shall thereby be the sweeter," yet the remainder of his speech sees rather little sweet in life: it is no more than "a breath... / Servile to all the skyey influences" and "death's fool." Then, addressing life directly, he continues: "Thou art not thyself / For thou exists on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not" and "Friend hast thou none?' In short, "What's in this / That bears the name of life?" (5-39). As Robert Watson observes, this speech "is essentially a compilation of contemptus mundi and ars moriendi commonplaces" on which the pious would meditate to prepare for death (117). Their delivery here may thus be an orthodox (if cliched and stiffly high-register) attempt on the part of the Duke to prepare Claudio's soul for eternity. Yet given Claudio's self-described peace in the face of death, they are far less needful than other things the Friar-Duke might have offered him, like the hope of eternal life. Claudio's initial response to the Duke's proffered comfort here is the hollow "To sue to live, I find I seek to die, / And seeking death, find life" (43-44), its hollowness demonstrated by the obvious fact that the Duke has made no mention of life after death or any hope beyond dissolution. J. W. Lever thinks the speech's overall tenor to be "essentially materialist and pagan" and only nominally Christian (lxxxvii).

The failure of the Duke's counsel is further indicated by the previously unknown terror of death that Claudio subsequently demonstrates before Isabella:
 Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
 To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot,
 This sensible warm motion to become
 A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
 To bathe in fiery floods or to reside
 In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice,
 To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
 And blown with restless violence round about
 The pendent world... (3.1.121-29)

Claudio's description of the afterlife here is not only as a-Christian as the Friar-Duke's, but the fears he expresses correspond exactly to the particular consolations the Duke has just extended to him, seeming almost to have been conjured by them. He is loathe "to rot / ... to become a kneaded clod"; his earthly spirit is in fact a "delighted" one; the thought of body and soul dissolved into the four elements (as Lever notes, lxxxviii) of "clod", fiery floods" and "ice", and "winds" is not comfort but terror. In attempting to provide Claudio with perhaps the most profound counsel expected of a clergyman, the Friar-Duke cannot get beyond the temporal world over which his jurisdiction rightly lies and so reduces the Christian spiritual hope of life after death to an exhortation to accept death's finality. His counsel is essentially "to be 'absolute for death' out of disgust for life," and Claudio's natural response is to be "'absolute for life' through the horror of [the Duke's version] of the world to come" (Lever lxxxviii).

The Duke has even worse success in preparing Barnardine for his pending execution. When he informs him, "I am come to advise you, comfort you, and pray with you,' Barnardine flatly refuses: "Friar, not I. I have been drinking hard all night, and I will have more time to prepare me, or they shall beat out my brains with billets. I will not consent to die this day, that's certain" (4.3.48-49, 50-53). The Duke goes on undeterred, though, until Barnardine abruptly cuts him off: "Not a word. If you have anything to say to me, come to my ward, for thence will not I today" (59-60). F. R. Leavis shrewdly notes that the "indifference to death displayed by [Barnardine] comes nearest to that preached by the Friar" to Claudio: "For him life is indeed an after-dinner's sleep, and he, in the wisdom of drink and insensibility, has no fear at all of death" (238). The irony of this parallel with the Duke's previous speech asks that we view the failure of this encounter as at least partly the Duke's, and not simply due to Barnardine's spiritual torpor. As with Julietta, the Duke is again taken up short by one he would have as his spiritual charge.

I hasten to add that the Duke's benevolence is not in question here, only his consistent inability to effect the cura anirnnarurn while disguised as a friar. By virtue of his actual identity as a magistrate, his methods are consistently mingled with those of the state. His failure to win Barnardine's repentance reveals the impossibility of a prince taking responsibility for the soul of an individual, yet saying that "to transport him in the mind he is / Were damnable" makes Angelo, if not the Duke himself, answerable for Barnardine's unrepentant soul (4.3.64-65). But Barnardine's blunt rejection of his counsel shows such a claim to be absurd on the part of a priest, let alone a prince. One whose office is to provide for the bonum commune simply founders when he ignores it to attempt the cura animarum.

That he has at the same time ignored his responsibility for the common good is seen in the charge of judicial laxity which he had previously accepted from Friar Thomas. He likened the Duke's administration of Vienna to that of "fond fathers" who have "bound up the threatening twigs of birch, / Only to stick it in their children's sight / For terror, not to use" (I.3.23-26). The result of considering only the individual "children" and not the whole "family" of his state has been that "liberty plucks justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum" (29-31). The Duke later refers to his negligence, however much it may have arisen from genuine and fatherly concern for his individual subjects, as a "vice" (3.1.524). He vividly describes his Vienna as a city
 Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
 Till it o'errun the stew: laws for all faults,
 But faults so countenanced that the strong statutes
 Stand like the forfeits in a barber's shop,
 As much in mock as mark. (5.1.320-24)

This blunt criticism of the result of his governance mirrors the earlier description of his realm that he gave to Friar Thomas. Here, though, and in the whole of the conclusive Act 5, there is no further indication that he takes responsibility for Vienna's state of affairs. Shuger suggests that in these pastoral forays, Shakespeare may well be exploring or embodying something of James I's attempts to act as a "king of souls" (110), a sort who, as "mixtae personae," are "bound to make a reckoning to God for their subjects soules as well as their bodies" (James 237). The effect of these portrayals, though, seems to question the plausibility of James' notion rather than to affirm it as a credible approach to government. By working directly for the salvation of souls in each of these cases, the Duke has failed in the civil ruler's primary duty: safeguarding the bonum commune of the state by enforcing its laws.


In Act 5, the Duke tries again as prince what he has attempted as friar--to effect the reform of his subjects' souls. Yet his philosophy of governance and of office will again be inadequate to the work of the state, and his civil authority to the work of the church. He exemplifies in his judgments as Duke the "reflexive" justice he has been suggesting as Friar--a justice that shares the essential methods and pastoral aims of church and priest. Yet it is also in Act 5 that a genuine alternative to this justice finally and coherently emerges after appearing sporadically throughout the play. Isabella displays a lucid and profound understanding of the need for the traditional division between the temporal and spiritual swords that forms a subtle but direct refutation of the Duke's concluding judgments.

After setting up his return to Vienna with the Provost, Isabella, Marianna, and Friar Peter, the Duke re-enters Vienna to receive back his tokens of authority. He greets Escalus and Angelo at the gates and tells the latter that "we hear / Such goodness of your justice that our soul / Cannot but yield you forth to public thanks" (5.1.5-7). He then takes his hand to "let the subject see, to make them know / That outward courtesies would fain proclaim / Favours that keep within" (15-17). This is a significant self-alignment with one whom many knew only as a fearfully harsh judge. His language foregrounds the theme of the inner and outer person, of thoughts and actions, which will figure strongly in his subsequent judgments: Angelo's goodness demands "public thanks" which ought not to remain hidden in "covert bosom:' This praise is particularly for the "goodness" of Angelo's "justice," and thus reconfirms the Duke's theoretical approval of Angelo's judicial severity, regardless of how Angelo's soon-to-be-revealed personal failings make the Duke's praise here ironic.

This approbation is soon checked, though, by Isabella's loud cry for "justice, justice, justice, justice!" (26). The Duke's response to her staged accusation of Angelo is to introduce what will become his only charge against his deputy:
 ... it imports no reason
 That with such vehemency he should pursue
 Faults proper to himself. If he had so offended,
 He would have weighed thy brother by himself,
 And not have cut him off. (109-13)

The Duke thus restates the central tenet of his approach to justice, that a judge must weigh the severity of his verdict by his own culpability. After being unhooded by Lucio, the Duke bears down on this charge against Angelo. In sentencing him, the Duke first asks Isabella to extend her own personal forgiveness to Angelo;
 ... but as he adjudged your brother,
 Being criminal in double violation
 Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach
 Thereon dependent for your brother's life,
 The very mercy of the law cries out
 Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
 'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death ...' (404-10)

The charge is not that Angelo violated "sacred chastity" or was in "promise breach" but rather that he saw fit to judge Claudio while he was in that state: "as he adjudged your brother, being criminal" himself, he is "dependent for your brother's life" There would be no charge if Angelo had not himself committed the crime he judged in another. In both cases, he assumes that the personal obligations given a Christian by the Sermon on the Mount are to hold sway in that Christian's governing of a state. If they do not, that ruler's violation of spiritual law must be prosecuted by the state--a conclusion identical in principle to Angelo's attempt to prosecute Claudio's sexual sin.

As we saw in his second interview with Isabella, Angelo has come around from his initially traditional opinion of office to that of the Duke, and his response to the Duke's charges continues to share his philosophical premises. Angelo's repentance seems genuine as he confesses:
 O my dread lord,
 I should be guiltier than my guiltiness
 To think I can be undiscernible,
 When I perceive your grace, like power divine,
 Hath looked upon my passes. (367-71)

Accepting his guilt and the condemnation it must bring, he requests sentence:
 Then, good prince,
 No longer session hold upon my shame,
 But let my trial be mine own confession.
 Immediate sentence, then, and sequent death
 Is all the grace I beg. (371-75)

Angelo's recognition of his guilt and his belief that its necessary punishment is death recalls St Paul's understanding of spiritual law, that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6.23). He perceives here both the deeply sinful nature of his actions and that the consequence of them is spiritual condemnation and death. Yet where Paul was speaking of the spiritual justice of God, Angelo sees this "death" as something that a temporal ruler, whom he likens to "power divine," can exact from him. There is a significant difference between this and his earlier statement to Escalus regarding Claudio: "When I that censure him do so offend, / Let mine own judgement pattern out my death" (2.1.29-30). There he was accepting responsibility for his severity to Claudio by stating his own readiness to receive the same penalty if he should be found guilty of Claudio's offence; the objective law is the measure of punishment, not the subjective moral integrity of the judge. Here, however, Angelo is answering to the Duke's principle that he should not "pursue / Faults proper to himself": the integrity of the judge determines the punishment (5.1.110-11). While the Duke's official charge of "An Angelo for Claudio" has not yet been made, that Angelo has something like it in mind is proven by his repeating this request for death after the Duke has clearly charged him with responsibility for Claudio's execution. For this essentially personal and spiritual failing, Angelo turns to the justice of the state and its temporal law. He does not even request from it the spiritual penance that might be appropriate to his crime, but rather execution by its temporal sword, thereby affirming his belief in its ability to deal temporally with spiritual offences.

Isabella's concluding understanding of justice is closely contrasted with Angelo's when she pleads with the Duke to pardon him. Her request develops the subtle distinction she had previously made between what is "set down ... in heaven" and what so "in earth." The Duke has just stated emphatically that Angelo "dies for Claudio's death" (444) when Isabella falls to her knees and implores him:
 Most bounteous sir,
 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; 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 perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
 Intents, but merely thoughts. (445-55)

Isabella here differentiates the grounds on which she might herself forgive Angelo and those on which the state might pardon him. As Lever perceives, "her bid to save Angelo's life is motivated by a Christian forgiveness of private wrongs; yet at the same time the form of pleading takes due account of the judicial approach to the specific case" (lxxi). Her forgiveness arises from the personal Christian imperative that the Duke has made a public law: putting herself in Angelo's shoes, she gives him credit for an initial "sincerity" that was later overcome by passion "when he did look on me" The weakness that precipitated his fall is both personal and common, and as such she forgives him for it as a fellow sinner.

Isabella does not, though, go on to insist that as she has forgiven Angelo so too should the state--the premise on which the Duke will forgive him. Rather, her recommendation of a state pardon is based on the nature of the law that Angelo has broken. This is not the Duke's law of "judge not" but the statute against fornication and Angelo's other more serious crimes. She admits that according to the law, Claudio "had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died." But because Angelo's "act did not o'ertake his bad intent, / [It] must be buried but as an intent." Critics have attacked Isabella's logic here as "twisted" and evidence of a "specious legalism" (Riefer 166) that sidesteps the fact that Angelo has still "slept with Mariana outside the bonds of holy matrimony, even as Claudio did with Juliet" (Barton 582). Yet they miss the subtlety of Isabella's argument--a subtlety necessary to legal dispute. She speaks here of Angelo's intended crime against her, not his wider guilt. She refuses to allow the state to make Angelo and the Duke's equation of intent with criminal actuality in the manner of the Sermon on the Mount, but recalls the division made by medieval political theology between the inner and outer person that Henry Berman traces back at least to the eleventh century, when criminal law emerged as a branch of study in its own right. (8) Its most basic differentiation was between inward sins of thought and outward crimes of action. Shuger surveys a variety of English sources that testify to this, right up until 1593, when canon lawyer Richard Cosin wrote of Queen Elizabeth that her goal in the Star Chamber court was "'not to search into men's consciences, nor to force the same, but only to extend the laws upon crimes committed either in word or deed'" (Shuger 107). In keeping with St. Thomas and the English tradition Cosin evinces, Isabella thus holds that the state is not to demand perfect Christian virtue from its subjects, but only their adherence to laws that prohibit the more serious vices that undermine the common good. Even her diction here attests to this: "Thoughts are no subjects," she says (emphasis mine), denying the state's jurisdiction over the workings of the inner person, "Intents but merely thoughts." To enter and thus be judged by the state, they must first be incarnated in action.


The Duke's wholesale pardons at the end of the play enact, says Shuger, "in an uncomfortably literal fashion, the ideal of Christian justice" that Isabella had initially urged on Angelo when she compared civil magistrates to Christ (132). Yet if the Duke's earlier attempt at pastoral care is any indication, the success of this literal Christian justice is anything but certain. When the judicial dust has settled in Vienna and all return to the business of their lives, his pardons seem likely only to reinstate the central error of laxity with which the Duke had earlier charged himself, ensuring that the city's "corruption" will continue to "boil and bubble" Not only is more serious sexual misconduct passed over, but a bribe-soliciting conspirator, a perpetual slanderer, and a convicted murderer are all turned loose. While Angelo's repentance seems genuine, we are only confirmed in our suspicions of Lucio and Barnardine's incorrigibility at play's end: one by his continued jests, the other by his silence. We are left to wonder about what the Duke will say to the family of Barnardine's next murder victim, or to the next woman Lucio merrily leaves pregnant with his child. (9) Shuger admits the far-from-certain result of these pardons, and with her I agree that they function as much symbolically as literally. Yet Isabella's careful argument is evidence that literal political discussion is still occurring in this scene. As such, the Duke's prioritizing of the spiritual concerns of individuals here is at best a bad imitation of the church's pastoral work, and neglects his primary responsibility to safeguard the bonum commune. His "extravagant abjuration of the penal" (Shuger 132) replaces one extreme--harsh, unyielding justice--with another: unmerited and irresponsible mercy. As Bawcutt keenly observes, "there is nothing in Act 5 to support those critics who argue that the play['s] ... ideal is some kind of blend or balance [of justice and mercy] ... The play seems to offer us little between these two extremes: death on the one hand, and forgiveness on the other" (96-97).

In fairness to the Duke, his genuine benevolence comes to the foreground when one reads Act 5 (and indeed most of his actions) in a more symbolic and less politically literal way. Shakespeare is at least partially, I think, using the play's political action and dialogue as metaphors with which to interrogate the structure of comedy, something evident in the play's central use of disguise, mistaken identities, and the Duke's shift from direct pastoral injunction to the indirect comic trickery he employs on Angelo and Isabella. The hoax he plays on her is as central to the play as the political debate, and it brings her from condemnation of sin to compassion for sinners. She had begun the play by rejecting a society that seemed thoroughly corrupt, an impression only confirmed for her by Angelo's proposition. This abhorrence of sin, though, causes her to reject even her own brother, whose sin is clearly more pitiable than Angelo's. Where Angelo at play's end remains as harsh toward his own sin as he was toward Claudio's, the Duke's trickery brings Isabella to temper her judgment of human weakness with compassion, first toward Claudio, and ultimately toward Angelo. In this light, the Duke's concluding marriage proposal might be a reasonable conclusion to her movement back toward and acceptance of imperfect human society. Yet to the Duke's possible surprise, her forgiveness remains closely paired with the political theology she argues in her second meeting with Angelo. Where she there rejected Angelo's scriptural equation of Claudio's sin with murder, she here rejects the Duke's scriptural reflexive justice, arguing for Angelo's pardon on the grounds that spiritual sin cannot be judged by the state. She learns selfless compassion; he, perhaps, that traditional political theology can also judge compassionately.

Isabella's distinction between the public obligations of a magistrate and the private duty of an individual Christian offers an alternative to Angelo's harshness and the Duke's ineffectiveness. The results of their administration are indeed radically different, but both arise from misapplying spiritual principle to temporal law in a way that ignores past centuries' interpretations of those principles. Philosophically, both are radical Protestants. Shuger's objection to Isabella's alternative is that "to restrict the scope of temporal justice to acts and facts ... tended to uncouple man's laws from God's laws" (107). The resulting divide is to her an example of the secular liberalism nascent in criminal law's development and in Thomas' theology "that viewed the state as an autonomous sphere with its own finite ends, and therefore as essentially distinct from the 'spiritual,' which now no longer embraced the whole of human life under grace but confined its territory to the goings-on inside men's souls" (131-32). Yet Isabella's concluding argument doesn't so much sever the temporal and spiritual as merely acknowledge that there are differences between them. Nor does she think that intentions do not matter to the state or "acts and facts" to God, but instead perceives that the state by its nature simply cannot see into a person's soul to gauge accurately what lies hidden there. In contrast, the play consistently demonstrates that the Friar-Duke's efforts to bring about the spiritual salvation of sinners are based on the same political theology as Angelo's attempts to exterminate them. While the Duke's intentions are certainly held up as more honorable than Angelo's, the success of both is distinctly ambiguous, indicating that the state's ministers can deal only crudely or approximately with the soul, no matter how compassionate their intent. Isabella offers instead the precise but sensible political theology that the medievals arrived at by centuries-long experience, a common sense that refuses any heady idealism about the likelihood of the kingdom of God being set up on earth, either by ridding it of sinners or treating them as parishioners. It accepts rather the reality of fallen men and women, neither demanding with force of law personal virtue unattainable by many, nor failing to take seriously the harm done by them to others. Shakespeare refuses membership in the camp of radicals of any sort by imaginatively and vividly displaying the continued viability of traditional politico-theological categories even as he gives serious consideration to those more novel.

University of King's College


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Author's note: I am grateful to Brent Nelson and John Baxter for their careful comments on drafts of this article, and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for financial support during its writing.

(1) "With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matt. 7:2). This and all subsequent Scripture references are to the 1599 Geneva edition, the spelling of which I have modernized.

(2) J. W Lever's important introduction to the Arden 2 edition of Measure for Measure is the most sophisticated example of this; more recently, Peter Lake shares many of Lever's opinions on the topic.

(3) Jonathan Dollimore is an original proponent of this view, Anna Kamaralli one more recent.

(4) For lucid summaries of this very large and complicated topic, see the essays of J. A. Watt and R. A. Markus.

(5) Ralph Houlbrooke's book gives a thorough account of post-Reformation church courts in England, highlighting their concern with the private spiritual life of the individual.

(6) Stacy Magedanz's very similar reading incorporates early Anabaptist political thought.

(7) Several critics have discussed Isabella and the Duke's shared monastic inclinations in politico-theological terms. David Beauregard contrasts Shakespeare's "generally favorable treatment" of monasticism with the "anti-fraternal" bent of several of his contemporary dramatists (57-74), while Magedanz finds sympathies with Anabaptist theology in each character (321).

(8) See especially pp. 185-87.

(9) I do not mean to imply that everyone would be better off if Lucio were executed as the Duke initially demanded, but simply that his actions require some form of containment beyond marriage, to which he is hardly likely to be faithful.
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