Shakespeare places his characters between the sharpest of rocks and the hardest of places to see how they struggle and who prevails. This is a fascinating play about many things, not least about how we struggle to live, to do what’s right, and how we’re judged by ourselves, the law and, in the case of this play, God.
The Duke of Vienna fears he’s allowed an epidemic of immorality and undisciplined behaviour to infect Vienna and decides he must crack down – more like Measure for Pleasure, amiright? Forgive me for that sinful pun. The Duke, uncertain of the backlash of his electorate, feigns a leave of absence, disguising himself as a friar, and leaving his protégé, Angelo, in his stead. In his first order of business Angelo sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for the crime of impregnating his fiancé out of wedlock. It’s worth noting here that this is one of the only plays in which Shakespeare discusses Christian morality this overtly. His sister, Isabella, a novice nun, is sent for to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life. She tries to reason with him, asking him to weigh this judicially ‘right’ decision with what might be considered morally ‘right’ in the eyes of God – a god said to embody the qualities of forgiveness and mercy.
So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffers. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder; nothing but thunder.
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Splits the unwedgeable and gnarled oak,
Than the soft myrtle. But man, proud man,
Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assure’d—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
We cannot weigh our brother with ourself.
Great men may jest with saints: ’tis wit in them,
But in the less, foul profanation.
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.
Tyrannous: One who exercises their power in a cruel way, or for the sake of it
Jove: King of the Gods; ancient Roman God of the sky and lightning
Pelting: Petty, worthless
Sulphurous: Bad tempered, angry
Unwedgeable: Unable to be split in half
Gnarled: Rough, old, knotty
Myrtle: An evergreen shrub with flowers
Spleens: An organ said to be the seat of anger, temper; bad tempered
Profanation: Rudeness, blaspheming, disrespect
So, you’ve decided to reassert these
And Claudio must suffer the resulting
sentence. Well, it’s all very well to have
such extraordinary power, but it is the
mark of great cruelty to exercise that
power in this way.
If our chosen rulers recklessly stomped
Like the god of thunder and lightning,
the thunder and lightning would never
Because every demi-god, drunk on his
Would use the sky for storms, so
there’d be nothing but thunder and
The fair, forgiving heaven,
Would much rather use its sharp
lightning to reprimand the tough,
stubborn tree, rather than the soft flower
which merely symbolises love: but
Even with his tiny amount of power,
He thinks he’s so righteous but in reality
he’s completely ignorant of what true
goodness is – he is nothing more than
reflected power – merely mimicing the
power of a real god like a bad actor,
undermining heaven and terrorising the
angels, until they laughed themselves to
death at man’s stupidity.
We simply cannot judge another person
in the same way we judge ourselves.
Sure, there are some people of such
greatness that the can talk of saints as
if they know them and it proves their
But for mere mortals, it’s blasphemous
to think you know the will of saints.
Really look inside yourself and ask your
heart whether you’ve ever known a
mistake like the one my brother has
If your heart admits it too has made
such a natural mistake as this,
Then prevent your tongue from uttering
another word in condemnation of my
Notes on Performance
At this point you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this play is a comedy – it’s so Shakespearean to write a ‘comedy’ which hinges on an act of capital punishment. Isabella is able to match Angelo intellectually in this first verbal spar and it’s part of the reason he’s tempted by her. She is intelligent and virtuous, is able to argue dynamically and hold her own. She tests Angelo and he is left giddy. Let yourself go with this speech. Consider the circumstances, work on personalisation and let Isabella’s sense of injustice guide you through.
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