Here we explore one of the most iconic monologues featured in Measure for Measure. Angelo, who initially appears one of the most moral and pious characters, finds himself forever altered by the virtuous Isabella. Though he previously considered himself immune to the powers of female temptation, in this moment he is overcome. Here we see him struggle with his new reality: “Can it be/That modesty may more betray our sense/Than woman’s lightness?”. This pure and “modest” woman has finally ignited a vehement passion within Angelo.
This monologue is a gift for an actor. The clear conflict and palpable sense of internal agony makes it active and naturally driven. We see a man desperate to work through these difficult feelings. As it’s a soliloquy you can share this turmoil outwardly, and really take us on the journey with you. It’s a moral battle where Angelo must wrestle with two opposing sides of himself for the first time. Will he then use his power to achieve his base desire, or rise above this temptation?
If you are considering preparing this soliloquy of Angelo’s, first begin by reading the play – at the very least ready the first two acts. Measure for Measure is a challenging play to access due to it’s odd plot line and challenging language. To do this soliloquy justice, you need to wrap your head around what is going on in the play before this moment in Act 2, Scene 2.
In brief, this play is about sex. The Duke of Vienna feels that he has been too lax with laying down the law in Vienna, and sees that the city is rampant with sexual promiscuity and liberty. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, however, he decides to task Lord Angelo with the job of cleaning up the streets, while he leaves town (but really stays in town dressed as a priest to observe Angelo… Shakespeare, right?)
Vienna is rife with red light districts, prostitution and sex outside of marriage. Angelo, upon being appointed as the temporary Duke (Imagine Dwight from The Office, if that helps) imposes strict laws about what is permissible when it comes to people’s sexual behaviour. Sex outside of marriage, for example, is strictly forbidden, and is punishable by death. Angelo hopes the strictness of these laws will ensure that the change in the city is swift and longstanding.
One of the first people to break this law, however, is Claudio, brother of Isabella, who has recently decided to become a nun. (Each character exists on the spectrum of sexual liberty in this play, and it’s important to take note of where each character sits on that spectrum).
Claudio, having impregnated Juliet (Not the Verona Juliet, obviously) has been arrested as the two were not married. Claudio swears that the two would have been married, but they were struggling for acceptance from Juliet’s family. All Angelo sees however is someone who has broken the law, and who must be put to death.
Act Two Scene Two is primarily a debate between Angelo and Isabella, Claudio’s sister. Isabella has been asked by Lucio (a friend of Claudio) to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. She does so, and after several attempts and gear shifts within the debate, wears down Angelos resolve- dismissing her with an “I’ll think about it”.
Angelo Monologue Act 2 Scene 2 (Original Text)
Angelo: What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault, or mine?
The tempter, or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she; nor doth she tempt; but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what are thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority,
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again?
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper: but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder’d how.
violet: these are flowers commonly associated with virtue and modesty. They are delicate and often linked to purity and innocence.
carrion: carcass, worthless beast, decaying flesh
season: time of year, weather conditions
sense: our senses
woman’s lightness: a woman being lewd or licentiousness
art and nature: the artifice of the courtesan
waste ground: brothels
raze:erase or wipe out
fie: exclamation of disgust, shame or indignation
stir my temper: disturb my mental equilibrium
What’s going on? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins the most?
Ha! It’s not her, and she doesn’t tempt either.
It’s me, lying in the sun like violets, but unlike violets (who grow in the sun) I rot like dead meat.
Is it possible for an honest and modest woman to arouse me more than a seductive one?
Having destroyed lots of ground already, do we wreck the church and commit our sins there too?
Oh no, no no!
Angelo, who are you, what are you doing?
Do you sinfully desire her for the reasons that she is virtuous?
O, let her brother live!
Thieves should be allowed to steal when their judges are also thieves.
I want to see her again and hear her speak again, does that mean I love her?
What is this dream I am in?
What a cunning enemy, that uses a saint to bait me- also a saint!
The most dangerous sin is the one which tempts us by using our love of goodness against us.
Prostitutes have never aroused me before, even though they have two weapons for their trade: Their seduction and their looks. But this virtuous girl has stunned me.
Even until just before this, lovestruck men amused me and I wondered how it could be possible to be like them.
Notes on Performance
As with approaching any character, it is often useful to look at what the other characters in the play say about them. Words which are used to describe Angelo, for example, are words like severe, cold and relentless. On the spectrum of sexual liberty, as I have mentioned above, Angelo sits on the end of the spectrum close to Isabella – proudly void of temptation and sexual deviancy.
What is essential for the actor to factor into account is the wearing down which has taken place before this soliloquy. Isabella has pleaded desperately with Angelo for the last ten minutes, and it has been an effective attempt on her behalf. Many other characters have begged for Angelo to be merciful to Claudio, which he has dismissed, stating the importance of him holding true to his original sentence.
He states: “We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.”
Angelo believes he is justified in the severity of his punishment of Claudio – this execution will serve as warning for the rest of the city not to continue behaving in the way they have previously.
To approach Angelo as a ‘villain’ at this point in the play may be misguided. He is certainly the antagonist, sure, in that he is inhibiting the release of Claudio, Isabella’s (The protagonist’s) brother. But that aside, Angelo in this moment is a character who has been completely floored. He is stunned by the effect Isabella has had on him, and he is disgusted in himself at what he is feeling. Angelo detests sexual promiscuity, and says himself that he is never tempted by prostitutes, but in this moment he finds himself hopelessly lusting after Isabella’s virtue and innocence.
Much like Sebastian in Twelfth Night, Angelo feels that he is in a dream/ nightmare like state at this moment. This experience is SO unlike anything he has experienced before, and he even goes so far as to ask “What art thou, Angelo?”.
With sex being the primary concern of the play, I feel it is not amiss of me to identify the building of tension in a climactic sense in the moments leading up to this soliloquy. The actor playing Angelo (especially if this speech is being taken out of context and is being used as an audition piece) must not start the speech at a low energy level. Angelo would have caught the scent of his attraction to Isabella much earlier than this moment in the scene, and every one of her actions – pleading with him, begging him on her knees, praying for him, would seem torturous to Angelo and create a building of lust and suspense within him. Start this piece from a place of real charge and energy, and you will find that energy carries you effectively throughout the piece.
As with any soliloquy, it’s important to answer some essential acting questions: Who is Angelo talking to, and what does he want from them? Remember, a soliloquy (monologue) is never just a monologue – it’s never just someone talking to themselves on a stage. They are always talking to something, at some target at a measurable distance from them (to quote Declan Donnellan). Identify who or what Angelo is talking to (His conscience, the audience, a person from his memory, for example) and then identify what he wants. What is his objective? Does he want to rid himself of these feelings? Does he want to tell Isabelle how he feels? You must do the legwork to identify this objective, based on what energises you most.
Enjoy the challenge of this character and this soliloquy. Once stripped back to its essential raw emotional condition, this soliloquy is actually quite simple and accessible. These are words spoken by a man who has had an experience which has changed his self-perception. He no longer sees himself the way he did just minutes before this encounter with Isabelle. Like any revolutionary moment for a human or fictional character, they are to be treated with respect and significance and not treated lightly. Treat this soliloquy with the same intensity and commitment that Angelo does, and you’re well on your way to giving a really effective performance of this speech.