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On first appearance, it could be perceived as though many of the characters introduced by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure are of an unsympathetic nature and make it difficult for an audience to become endeared to any of their situations. Unlike other Shakespearean plays, in particular those which share the problem play genre, some critics have argued that the personalities in Measure for Measure can appear to be one-dimensional, and apart from perhaps Angelo, have little complexity to their character.
This perhaps is accounted for in the title of the play, a biblical reference from the book of Matthew (7: 1-2), by which it is suggested that the audience should not be concerned by the individual characters within Measure for Measure, but instead by their roles and what they are symbolic of in the overall portrayal of real and fictional social issues of law, morality and justice.
It could also be argued however that whilst no character appears to be truly sympathetic throughout, the moral pressures that Shakespeare places the characters under enables even the most unsympathetic characters such as Angelo to reveal a moral conscience and sense of compassion reveals even the most unsympathetic such as Angelo to have a moral conscience and sense of compassion The Duke can be considered as the puppet master in this play, which facilitates the fact that the other characters are used to illustrate particular moral problems.
In Act one, scene one, when the Duke is introduced, the audience learn of the Duke's current role in society and of his intentions to bestow power on somebody else in order for peace and morality to be restored in Vienna, "Hold therefore, Angelo:- In our remove be thou at full ourself, mortality and mercy in Vienna, Live in thy tongue and heart".
The understanding that the Duke plans his retreat from power for a seemingly valid reason, that he is unable to restore law and order himself, perhaps causes him to appear to be a sympathetic character with good moral standing.
Despite the Duke having a sympathetic approach to the need to restore a sense of order to his land, when it is learned that his replacement Angelo is a decidedly unsympathetic character leads Claudio and Lucio, and indeed the audience, to question the Duke's decisions, as Angelo is described as, "A man of stricture and firm abstinence". Whilst Shakespeare at first presents the Duke as someone who wishes to act in the best interests of his people, and feels that the best way to restore order is to retreat quickly leaving Angelo as deputy for an undetermined amount of time.
These actions could be perceived as contributing to a sympathetic character, but his second appearance in Act one, scene three of the play gives cause to the audience to probe further in to his actions, indeed one of the purposes of a problem play, but something which arguably detracts from the original sympathetic image of the Duke that had been created. Much of this comes down to whether his actions are viewed to be selfish and ignoring his duty as leader, or whether they are seen to be a positive and effective way to restore order in Vienna under a 'firm' deputy because he feels guilty for letting it get out of control.
His testing of Angelo, particularly indicated by the fact that the Duke wishes to adopt a disguise, which allows him many privileges, to watch events unfold, "To the hopeful execution I do leave you of your commission", this could be argued to indicate that the Duke knows more about Angelo's somewhat unsavoury character that the audience are so far aware of, and the amount of contradictions between Duke's words and actions combine in this scene to dramatically reduce the sympathy that may have previously been felt towards the Duke.
The character of Isabella, simply described by many writers as a young girl of virtue and chastity, is one to whom the audience are initially inclined to be much more sympathetic towards. Her puritanical beliefs and intentions to join the nunnery at a young age, "but rather wishing a more strict restraint upon the sisters stood, the votarists of Saint Clare", would have been seen as a sympathetic and admirable trait to members of Shakespeare's early seventeenth century audiences, particularly in the more academic circles to which this play was more commonly performed.
However, this element of Isabella's character is somewhat foreign to an audience today, many of whom are unfamiliar with such restrained beliefs, and it can be said that as general social attitudes towards sex and religion have become increasingly liberal, the amount of sympathy felt towards Isabella, upon her introduction at least, has decreased. On the other hand, Shakespeare also puts Isabella in a situation to which her response makes her appear a much more sympathetic character.
Upon hearing about Claudio's arrest, Isabella is coerced by Lucio in to trying to help, despite her protests that she is powerless to change Angelo's orders, "Alas, what poor ability's in me to do him good". Lucio persuades Isabella to act feminine and flirty towards Angelo, "Go to Lord Angelo, and let him learn to know, when maiden's sue, men give like Gods, but when they weep and kneel all their petitions are as freely theirs", despite the fact that Isabella's devout beliefs would usually prohibit her from speaking to a man unless in the presence of a senior nun.
The fact that Isabella responds, "I'll see what I can do", endears her to an audience irrespective of context, as she agrees to behave in a way so contradictory to her religious beliefs in order to try and help her brother, a loyal and fairly brave thing to agree to doing when she has no confidence in succeeding at all. At this point in the play, it would appear as though Isabella, although a character with morals that are less popular today, appears to be a truly sympathetic character.
Her lack of shock at the situation Claudio and Juliet are in before they are officially married further cements the notion that she is a sympathetic character, and also can be seen as to suggest that situations such as her brother's were not unfamiliar and not completely frowned upon and her lack of harsh judgement of the pair, despite it contradicting her strong religious morals, reveals a level of compassion that is very rarely seen elsewhere within Measure for Measure.
Lord Angelo, the harsh deputy appointed by the Duke is a character who is perhaps the most complex throughout the entire play, from his ambiguous and evil nature to his somewhat changing attitudes much later on in the play. Angelo is introduced by Shakespeare as a harsh and strict leader, someone who is supposedly chosen because he has the capabilities to restore order in a city whose moral foundations have been crumbling for a considerable amount of time.
Angelo is also portrayed by the Duke though to be a very noble and worthy man, "If any in Vienna be of worth to undergo such ample grace and honour, it is Lord Angelo", but once more this description is closely linked with what the Duke intends Angelo to do in power. Indeed when Angelo speaks to Duke in Act one, scene one, "Now my good lord, let there be some more test made of my metal, before so noble and great a figure be stamped upon it", it indicates that he is respectful and honoured to have the position bestowed upon him, giving hint to a sympathetic side, but this proves to be much more deeply concealed until further on in the play.
At this point, Angelo is perceived by the Duke and other characters, namely Claudio, Lucio and Isabella, as being a harsh and irrefutably unsympathetic character who intends on making an example of Claudio in order to set a new expectation of moral standards in Vienna and restore forgotten laws.
In context however, and to an audience perhaps familiar with a slipping awareness of the correct moral code, Angelo seems controlled and to have the interests of the state at heart, "we must not make a scarecrow of the law", again perhaps an appeal to the educated audiences, most likely to be seated at the Inns of Court, that the play would have been mostly performed to.
It can be argued that Shakespeare's social commentary can be seen in Angelo's dialogue with Escalus in Act two, scene one, which enable more empathy, when he shows awareness that, "I do not deny that the jury passing on the prisoner's life may in the sworn twelve have a thief or two". This speech also demonstrates that he has the courage in his convictions because he appears to truly believe that his actions to punish Claudio are just, "Let mine own judgement pattern out my death, and nothing come in partial, Sir he must die".
To a modern day audience, much like in the case of Isabella, this contributes to the perception of him as an unsympathetic character, as the punishment of Claudio set by Angelo seems unnecessarily harsh, "See that Claudio be executed by nine tomorrow morning", and an unjust punishment for the 'crime' he is seen to have committed, but equally may have portrayed him as an unsympathetic but strong leader to an audience of the time.
Despite the initial unsympathetic perception of Lord Angelo, he further on in the play becomes led more by his instincts and sexual desires as opposed to the measures rationality we are familiar with, a point which to some makes him more sympathetic because he appears to be controlled by human emotions and desires like many of the citizens of Vienna, whereas it can be more strongly argued that the hypocrisy of his decisions secures his position as a truly unsympathetic character within the play.
Other characters within Measure for Measure can also be discussed in terms of how sympathetic they are, as despite not being particularly dramatic characters, their roles are important within the play as a whole. Lucio, for example, on one hand attracts sympathy because he appears to genuinely be supportive of his friend Claudio's plight. Despite appearing to take this seriously, his approach to Isabella, typical of his language throughout the play, exudes some of the vulgarities which the authorities in Vienna are keen to get rid of and negate some of the sympathy that may be directed towards him, as he appears rude and mocking of Isabella.
This can also be seen with characters such as Madame Overdone and much of the language used between the more minor characters, which is full of innuendo and references to sexual exploits and diseases such as syphilis in banter between characters, such as, "you that have worn your eyes almost out in the service" and "groping for trouts in a peculiar river".
In conclusion, it is very difficult to attribute any character within the play Measure for Measure with the label of truly sympathetic, as although many have sympathetic traits - namely Isabella, and some are placed in situations which attract a certain amount of empathy - such as Claudio - many characters also have flaws to their character which, sometimes according to context, diminish how sympathetic a character they are seen to be. Critic Keith Sagar comments that, "We are not sure what Shakespeare expects us to feel about these characters.
There are no heroes or villains, no blacks and whites, only shades of grey", which supports the view that whilst the characters are fairly simple, they are characters which at points may be seen as sympathetic, but yet it is not a consistent attribute amongst any character that could fairly support them being labelled as truly sympathetic, as this would imply no deviation from a particular and acceptable way of behaving, which is difficult to prove true for even the most overall sympathetic characters in the play.
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