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. Continue reading

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