Law and Administration in Measure for Measure

“There is one Jesus Christ. The rest is dispute over trifles”  Queen Elizabeth


After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, James IV of Scotland was named her successor. As much as the literature flourished because of Queen Elizabeth’s love for art and literature, she was equally commendable when it came to law and order. She was a tolerant ruler. The England’s golden age was an era of peace and prosperity. It’s said Shakespeare welcomed the new king with Macbeth. Measure for Measure was written in 1604 and during this time James I ruled England. The Duke in this play has been regarded by Escalus as being the “gentlemen of all temperance”. The play shows a balance between the extremes of governance. While Angelo, pretending to be strict in laws, is still of a loose character and on the other hand, we find the Duke more pious and a better ruler without any pretentions. The play tells us to what extent should the restriction be imposed and how far should the government go to implement and practice a law. This is relevant in today’s society as well. During the period of James however, the laws were extreme and people could be given capital punishment for even the most minor crimes. In the play, these laws were almost similar during the Duke Vincentio’s governance as well but they weren’t implemented well. The story though set in Vienna, reflects the rules of England at that time. The laws of marriage were a little different than what we see today. The Church expected people to marry however the English law accepted even those couples who made promises of marriage and accepted it were considered married. We see Claudio referring to it to Lucio, “thus stands it with me: upon a true contract I got possession of Julietta’s bed. You know the lady; she is fast, my wife, save that we do the denunciation lack of outward order”. James believed in the Divine Right’s Theory that is, he held power directly from God and was the deputy of God sent on earth. We see Angelo being referred to as Deputy and that tells quite a bit about the Duke himself. However Isabella reminds Angelo that rulers are not Gods and humans make mistakes and that rulers should not misuse their authority- “but man, proud man, dress’d in a little brief authority plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as makes the angels weep”. She tells Angelo that the people in power often commit crimes and corruption under the veil of their authority, “…authority though it err like others, hath yet a kind of medicine in itself that skins the vice o’th’ top” (Act 2, Sc 2).

The rulers of this play are very reputed and consider themselves high in esteem. However we see the use of “your honor” for Angelo in the play is ironic as he is corrupted and is of ill intentions. Angelo is a dual-faced pretentious man, who on assuming the post of the Duke considers himself above law and order and imposes it in the strictest of the manner onto the people. On the one hand he punishes Claudio to death for committing adultery and impregnating his fiancée while one the other, he asks Isabella, about to be nun, to sleep with him if she wants to save her brother’s life. So justice is basically void in this part of the novel while the ending is supposed to right the wrongs and settles with the marriage of most of them. Vienna’s legal code is not perfect in its form but it’s made worse by the representatives of power. The play is less of a Christian redemption and realization and more of the duplicity of power and its holders. While in one sense we can say that the Duke restored justice however it again represents the right to rule over every one of what he thinks is right instead of what really was. Most of the characters are in binary opposition to one another. Angelo’s imposition of law is a sharp alteration from Duke’s regime. Before Angelo, most of the laws “like unscoured armor, hung by the wall” (Act 2 Sc 1). There is mercy in the play but at the same time there is not. Barnardine refuses to be executed in place of Claudio and he is allowed to do so as if its Barnardine who decides whether or no he wants to die. William Hazlitt says, “Barnardine is a fine antithesis to the morality and the hypocrisy of the other characters in the play”.

The legal concept of equity played a critical role in the play however to what extent was it achieved is a matter of further study. Vincentio wanted Vienna to be in order and discipline; he wanted his subjects to be law-abiding and thus wanted the laws to be implemented in a better way. When he appoints Angelo to do so, it means that he knows that he has failed in his duties however Angelo himself is proved corrupt. The Duke acts as a teacher who is also a lawgiver and a judge.


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