Merciful Justice, Shakespeare!

I have a little homecoming ritual that I practice at the end of most weekdays. I walk in the door, and greet my three girls who are ecstatic at my arrival because they, too, have a part in the homecoming ritual. We walk together to the kitchen and the baby is already yelling, “Can-ee! Daddy!” Upon reaching the kitchen, I open a very high cupboard and measure out a few candies for each child. Should I accidentally (or not) give an additional jellybean to a younger child, my oldest daughter is sure to point out my transgression. To her demands for equal treatment under the candy law, I reply, “Life’s not fair. Have another candy.” I don’t get into a long treatise on justice with her. She’s so transparent: her cries for justice are nothing more than a ploy for more candy.

But at some point in her life, she will probably cry out for justice in a very different way. All of us do. I recently read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with my undergraduates and was struck by the nuanced account of measuring justice. In the first Act, Duke Vicentio decides to leave Vienna in the hands of Angelo, his deputy, giving him power to enforce the laws as he sees fit. Angelo is a swift judge when presented with Claudio, who has fornicated with the now-pregnant Juliet. Angelo brings down the full weight of the law against Angelo and sentences him to death. Ostensibly, Angelo wants to reestablish the law of the land by making Claudio an example.

Claudio admits he has broken the law, but Shakespeare includes several extenuating circumstances. Most importantly, Claudio and Juliet were engaged, but could not marry for want of a dowry. While this reason may seem antiquated to the modern reader, the dowry was no small matter to the Elizabethan audience and real cause for delaying marriage. In comparison to the rampant sexual immorality displayed by comic characters like Pompey, who regularly visit brothels, Claudio’s sin is mild. He loves Juliet, is faithful to her, and plans to marry her.

The central tension of the play is introduced when Isabella, the distraught sister of Claudio, visits Angelo to beg pardon for her sentenced brother. Isabella asks Angelo to condemn her brother’s act but spare her brother. Angelo denies her petition, replying, “Condemn the fault and not the actor of it? / Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done: / Mine were the very cipher of a function, / To fine the faults whose fine stands in record, / And let go by the actor” (2.2.40-44). In other words, in order to execute justice, he must punish the sin and the sinner both. In response, Isabella reminds Angelo how far every human falls short of divine law: “How would you be, / If He, which is the top of judgment, should / But judge you as you are? O, think on that; / And mercy then will breathe within your lips, / Like man new made” (2.2.80-84). Her words remind the audience that justice is proportionate—human judges are also always being judged. Her plea for sympathy falls on deaf ears, however, for Angelo claims that the law and not he himself is responsible for condemning Claudio (2.2.85).

Why then does Angelo choose Claudio as an example when so many more egregious violators are at hand? As events unfold, a hidden motive emerges. Isabella seeks a second audience with Angelo, but this time, Angelo has decided to offer the release of her brother in exchange for her virginity. Outraged, Isabella refuses. Angelo’s corruption becomes even more evident when he reasons with her, “Might there not be a charity in sin / To save this brother’s life?” (2.4). While the law might have been just, the foul motive of Angelo reveals that true justice depends not only on the law but on the judge.

What then is Shakespeare demonstrating in this strange comedy? The nineteen-year span that the law went unenforced in Vienna led to widespread debauchery, which is the source of most of the play’s humor. However, when the law is enforced, it leads to a much less tolerable condition. Does Shakespeare show us that justice is unattainable? Is this a play about the absurdity of the human desire for justice?

I think the conclusion of the play offers a deeply theological response to these questions. Measure for Measure provides an analogy between human and divine justice. Human justice is frail because it depends on finite, fallen creatures, who are both deceivers and deceived. But we also know that injustice leads to degeneration and vice. What can save Claudio? What can save Isabella? What can save us? Echoing Scripture, Shakespeare shows that law cannot lead to perfect justice, but a proper handling of the law must not offend justice. So how is the law properly handled?

In the final scene, amidst much confusion about who is justified and who isn’t, the Duke puts a halt to the proceedings and, though he himself finds justice difficult to discern, shows pardon and mercy to all. The Duke pardons Claudio so that he can marry Juliet. Angelo confesses his faults and, though the Duke at first condemns him, he himself is then talked into showing mercy. Finally, the Duke asks for Isabella’s hand. And so this troubling play about justice ends with marriage. It ends hopefully. And the play puts human justice in its proper place—there are severe limitations on humans enforcing the law, but Shakespeare invites us to see human justice in light of divine mercy.

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