This is at least the second time that I have read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. For this go around, I will try to get at the big theme.
For those not familiar with the plot, the action takes place in Vienna. The Duke, who apparently has let the city fall into debauchery and disorder, announces plans to leave town for a time and put his lieutenant, the seemingly virtuous Angelo, in charge. Initially the Duke expects Angelo to get things straightened out. Angelo takes over and quickly tunes oppressive, arresting and sentencing to death anyone accused of adultery, prostitution, etc. One of the victim’s is Claudio, who is arrested and sentenced to die for adultery.
When Claudio’s sister, the extremely virtuous, but charismatic and attractive Isabella, begs Angelo for her brother’s life, Angelo, proves himself the ultimate hypocrite by agreeing to spare Claudio on the condition that Isabella sleep with him. Isabella, who will clearly never agree to the proposition, sadly resigns herself to the fact that her brother will die.
Meanwhile, the Duke, who is secretly still in the city disguised as a friar, hears of Claudio and Isabella’s troubles, and executes an elaborate plan to fool Angelo into sleeping with another women disguised as Isabella, spare Claudio’s life, re –establish his governance of the city, as well as act as a matchmaker for most of the major characters. His plan works out, he arranges for several (very ill conceived) marriages, including his own to Isabella.
However serious the major points of the plot are, the play is written in a lighthearted tone, as it is often very funny. A highlight of the dialog comes when Claudio suggests that Isabella accede to Angelo’s demands in order to save his life. Isabella’s ensuring explosion is brilliantly written and hilarious.
To me, The Vienna of Measure for Measure is a little microcosm of the Universe as a whole. I believe this to be true of several of the Bard’s works. Though common themes and philosophy run through all of these plays, sometimes Shakespeare’s “Theory of Everything” varies a little bit among these works. For instance, I see King Lear as taking place in a Universe of pure chaos, where malevolence and insanity are natural laws and where there is little or no justice for the good. Measure for Measure presents a world that is at times less nasty, but no less chaotic.
At first glance the play can be interpreted as championing a Christian worldview. After all, the fanatically pious Isabella in the end, retains her saintliness, sees her brother saved and her reputation elevated. If the Duke is a symbol of a Deity, Isabella has been justly rewarded for her Christian virtues.
There seems to be more to it, however, The Duke does seem to represent, God, or at least a symbol of how the Universe is works. This conclusion seems inevitable since he is in able control of everything behind the scenes, from the beginning of the play, to the end. When the Duke chooses to, He controls Vienna with almost no trouble or impediments. At the conclusion, he doles out justice and forgiveness.
But he is a mischievous, imperfect, a little corrupt and sometimes not very enthusiastic about life. Lest one think that the control mentioned above is constant, it is clear from even his own statements, that this period of manipulations has followed a long stretch of time when he was very much asleep at the wheel. He exerts control in a lazy fashion, when and how he chooses to.
Though the Duke is not an oppressor, Lucio, one of many scandalous citizens of Vienna, points out his weaknesses as a ruler, “A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow”, and later accuses him of lechery. He is a ruler that at times, metes out the mildest punishments for severe crimes, yet during other periods, allows oppressive, sadistic and hypocritical tyrants to hold sway and cause misery for others.
Furthermore, while attempting to convince Claudio that he should accept death, the Duke provides a memorable, nihilistic speech on the inevitable unhappiness and meaninglessness of life.
Yet, this ruler does bring rewards to the ultimate Christian, Isabella. However he also rewards, or at least pardons with no consequences others, including the monstrous Angelo and the slothful, drunken and indifferent Barnardine. One can argue that the Christian God forgives, but these characters do not ask for forgiveness. The Dukes decisions in the end in no way seem to mete out Justice and there is no sense that any of the nefarious persons have learned anything. While pious virtue is not punished, Shakespeare seems ultimately ambivalent towards Isabella’s nearly psychotic religiosity.
Measure for Measure presents us with a world and its controller that, if not as cruel as King Lear, is often random and full of meaningless sufferings. There is more corruption here then there is justice. Sometimes however, if one is lucky, things can turn out OK, at least for a while.