Consider Act II of "Measure for Measure", with regard to ideas of Justice and Mercy

Categories: Measure for Measure

Right at the start of the Act we are provided with a distinct definition of Angelo’s view of justice in regard to what has happened with the law concerning illegitimate fornication. The law has in effect been made a joke an in Angelo’s view justice is not being served. In this scene that battle of Justice and Mercy is fought between Angelo And Escalus with Escalus holding the flag of mercy arguing that Claudio’s fault is one innate in human nature.

“Whether you had not sometime in your life err’d in this point, which now you censure him”, terror should be exercised with view to mercy. The mockery that is endured by Justice sometimes is also expressed by Angelo in his speech spanning from lines 17-31, “The jury passing on the prisoners life may in the sworn twelve have a thief or two, Guiltier then him they try”, this is seen as perfectly reasonable by Angelo, oblivious to the contradiction within this.

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Over the majority of Scene I in this act the wide repercussions of Angelo’s tyranny are revealed. From lines 133-6 we see what little patience Angelo actually has for this issue. He shows little regard for the Bawds telling Escalus simply to whip them away and walk away from the scene. With such restrictions in place it is something that Angelo would have had to deal with regularly with activity fuelled by such strong desires as lust being clearly undeniable and unstoppable for people, a key theme repeatedly expressed throughout the play.

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With such desire it is farcical to outlaw it and not particularly justified. Angelo continually justifies the tough punishment by saying it is a sort of mercy within itself due to future conduct being affected by such an example to draw reference upon.

This sentiment is repeated by Escalus on line 280 when he says ” Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so; Pardon is still the nurse of the second woe”, Angelo believes in his justification due to future deterrence But he is attempting to stop something to which he is prone to himself which is a clear injustice. What is worse though is the test case he picks out in order to illustrate his terror. Claudio is sentenced only due to a technicality of the dowry and as is scene in scene’s II and III he is making a child fatherless. Angelo takes this decision without looking at the case too carefully as he is clearly obliged to do, even when shown the flaws of his decision he is incapable of acting with mercy and this along with his future conduct is what makes Angelo’s decision a travesty to justice.

In scene II it is generally a battle between mercy and justice with Angelo taking up the helm of justice once again and Isabella fighting for mercy. It is clear though that in the end Isabella wins this skirmish. One of the key speeches in this scene is the following from lines 134-142:

Because authority, though it err like others,

Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself

That skins the vice o’ the’ top. 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 his,

Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue

Against my brother’s life.

She attacks a very important aspect of authority showing how powerful the implications of such justice could have. Authority and justice have faults themselves and she argues of the grave implications of using it too freely, it must be balanced with mercy as she says ” it is excellent to have a giants strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant”, giant being used to suggest little thought has gone into the decision itself. Angelo has to be careful with his office in order to exercise justice and mercy measure for measure yet he falls short of this. He wants to set the ball rolling for reform but in the speech Isabella suggest it will simply form a palliative covering the vices without healing them. This “vice” is a natural guiltiness though and it is one that Angelo feels all to well, after all “All sects, all ages smack of this vice, and he to die for’t”, there is not justice being served here and there is a total disregard for mercy.

It does take Isabella some time to get to this point in the scene since she begins rather hesitantly giving in almost saying things like “Just but severe law”, saying that she believes that justice should prevail agreeing and resigning, only taking up the lance once again when Lucio beckons her to do so. This is evidence that justice is indeed being carried out under Angelo’s rule and given the motives the Duke had to put Angelo in it could be argued so far that his standpoint to an extent is justified. Scene III though does suggest that mercy is required in this case particularly and Isabella uses mercy to appeal in an attempt to get at Angelo’s heart, but it is not her way with words that strikes a chord with his heart.

She begins with the simple switching of situations presenting mercy in regard to how it can be a great remedy for a man saying, “mercy then will breathe within your lips like a many new made”. There is a feeling of redemption to this, Isabella focus is uniquely upon Claudio’s case though and Angelo is forever looking beyond it and onto Vienna as a whole with its wider consequences. This idea is exemplified from lines 101-6 when Isabella tries to push him into showing pity:

I show it most of all when I show justice;

For then I pity those I do not know,

Which a dismissed offence would after gall,

And do him right that, answering one fool wrong,

Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;

Your brother dies tomorrow; be content.

This speech is exemplary not only of Angelo’s thinking but also the Dukes train of thought when he first decided to put Angelo in his position. But the fundamental aspect is missing since the injustice within Claudio’s case marks this out in particular making the sentence particularly unfair. Strength is used without too much wisdom here, as is referred to by Isabella with the phrase “giants strength”. The force used to punish Claudio is completely disproportional and unfair, particularly when contrasted with how Escalus dealt with the bawds along with his own reservations over Angelo’s decision making as well as by the Provost secretly rooting for Isabella to win throughout the scene.

Scene III in between the confrontation and proposition serves as a timely reminder of the factors in this case making it so unique and helping strengthen the case for mercy here. The role of justice is fundamentally undermined since the aim of the law is to try and stop sexual activity between those who are unmarried but Juliet loves Claudio “as I love the women that wrong’d him”. there is love between them and they should be married were it not for the dowry and death is unjustifiable in this case. There is an element of irony here since the dowry which stopped Claudio and Juliet from marrying is also the same thing that brings about Angelo’s downfall in regard to Marianna. We are also reminded of Juliet being a mother and Claudio being a father, Angelo is not only killing Claudio but he is also denying a child a father something incredibly unfair given the way the sentence has been reached.

Scene IV us one of the most important in the play as it features the almost inevitable downfall of Angelo and of justice being used to rather perverse leaving Isabella in a horrible position. Her dilemma along with all her conflicting values are expressed in the speech from lines 170-184:

To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,

Who would believe me? O perilous mouths,

That bear in them use and the self same tongue

Either of condemnation or approof.

Bidding the law make curtsey to their will,

Hooking both right and wrong to th’ appetite,

To follow as it draws! I’ll to my brother.

Though he hath fallen by prompture of the blood,

Yet hath he in him such a mind of honour,

That had he twenty heads to tender down

On twenty bloody blocks, he’d yield them up

Before his sister should her body stoop

To such abhorr’d pollution,

Then, Isabel live chaste, and brother, die;

More than our brother is our chastity.

This speech captures what Isabella has to decide and the way the law has been turned to something almost perverse which is particularly captured in lines 174-6. Angelo has subjected justice to his own lust and base appetite and has ironically used his virtue to shield his own sin. Looking at justice not only is this a travesty to the law but it is also wrong against any type of justice. This action by Angelo is against everything he supposedly stands for and he has attempted to throw justice out of the window along with mercy which was out of the question to begin with. Along with this there is the abundant value Isabella attaches to her own chastity which is in some peoples view lopsided.

The idea if “twenty heads to tender down on twenty bloody blocks”, as being far more desirable then her giving up her chastity suggests something is fairly askew here. It suggests her own personal sense of justice and mercy is wrong here and calls into question her own morality with the issue of her chastity. She clearly believes giving up her chastity is like giving up her soul but as Angelo suggests “Pleas’d you to do’t, at peril of your soul, were equal poise of sin and charity. Isabella rather hard headedly disregards this though and holds the firm view that her chastity is so important, without even reasonable contemplation of the alternative. This would suggest that Isabella is incapable of and really mercy herself, can we really condemn Angelo so when Isabella cannot act upon what she is arguing?

Of course as a magistrate, some qualification has to be required as they have to be capable of showing mercy, but when in office, men are seen as deputies of God on earth, this demi god authority has to be carefully balanced between justice and mercy so it is not just “thunder, nothing but thunder”, and this responsibility lies solely on Angelo’s shoulders and in this respect he fails, and to an extent the duke with poor choice may be seen to fail as well. In Claudio’s situation a wise magistrate would have seen a case for leniency, instead a well-intentioned young man on the verge of becoming a father is sentenced to death and a hardened professional bawd in Pompey is allowed to escape on the sly. Angelo insists law should be enforced with exemplary terror in case it falls into contempt in contrast with Escalus who s a good magistrate and alludes to the right circumstances causing any man, even Angelo as he does, to err like Claudio.

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Consider Act II of "Measure for Measure", with regard to ideas of Justice and Mercy. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Consider Act II of "Measure for Measure", with regard to ideas of Justice and Mercy

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