Discuss the Treatment of Justice and Mercy in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a comedy, but it has tragic potentials with a slight twist of the plot. Shakespeare could have ended it as a tragedy. The deputy of the Duke, Angelo, tries to administer justice on a corrupt society. But ironically he commits the same crime for which he had sentenced Claudio to the gallows. Angelo does not show mercy on the sinner; does he deserve mercy himself? Isabella, Claudio’s sister pleads mercy to Angelo in order to save her brother’s life, but when she herself is asked to be merciful to her brother and to sacrifice her chastity for saving his life, she recoils from suggestion with hatred. How can then justice and mercy be reconciled in this world? Shakespeare designed Measure for Measure as a problem play; he wanted to try out certain contentions of his regarding the extent of human authority, the rigorousness of law, the fallibility of the human judges and above all the superiority of the principle of mercy over justice. Such themes are fit to be treated in a tragedy with due propriety and solemnity. In Measure for Measure, the atmosphere is nearly tragic from the beginning to the end, as the death-sentence hangs over Claudio’s head.

Shakespeare catches the main character, the Duke, Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio in a net of the philosophical proposition and makes the play a kind of symposium on the problem of justice and law in this world. Where even the most virtuous stoops to folly and commits a sin that abhors publicly. Is justice to be tempered with mercy? Should the rigorousness of the law be softened with a humane understanding of the weak nature of men and women? Shakespeare tests out another of his preoccupying things in this play- mercy is a superior principle of justice and that men can attain the stature of God by being more merciful than just.

The theme of justice and mercy is clearly stated in the opening scene of the play. The Duke leaves his station after having delegated his authority to Angelo, to whom he says;

“Mortality and mercy in Vienna

Live in thy tongue and heart.”

The Duke means to say that he is endowing Angelo with the authority to sentence a man to death. This is almost a divine power. Angelo is given authority over the Viennese people’s life and death. The Duke is like God himself and merciful to administer law with pitiless strictness. His deputy, Angelo, does not have the benignity and vastness of the heart that the Duke possesses. Angelo begins his work of administering the country with an iron hand. Although he was given both mercy and mortality under his power, he does not show any mercy. Angelo proclaims that all the brothels of the suburbs of Vienna would be dismantled. He is determined to put a stop to all criminal activities, particularly the sexual-offenses which are rampant in Vienna. Angelo’s action in sentencing Claudio to death is fully justified from the point of view of the law. Even Isabella pleading for saving her brother’s life does not question the legality and justness of this sentence. Angelo, in this case, has undoubtedly done an act of justice. Angelo follows the law but fails to recognize the fact that law is supposed to benefit men and that law is for men and not the other way round. Angelo does not know the spirit of the law. In his scheme of things, mercy does not have a place.



The encounter between Angelo and Isabella, in Act-1, Scene-II, becomes a wrestling between two opposing conception of justice- both equally strong and both to a large extent justified Angelo. Clings to the need for law in a loose and corrupt country:-

“We must not make a scarecrow of the law,

Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,

And let it keep one shape till custom make it

Their perch and not their terror.

                                                           (Act-2, Scene-1)

Isabella, on the other hand, stresses the need for mercy in administering justice. Justice should be tempered with mercy because God himself is merciful. If God were too strict in administering punishment, none could escape, not even a man like Angelo. The encounter takes the shape of a verbal battle between two equally gifted advocates. Isabella’s arguments in favor of mercy are grounded in the Christian doctrine of mercy and forgiveness. She also uses a secular argument like the following:

“No ceremony that to great one’s longs,

Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,

The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe,

Become them with one half so good a grace”

                                                            (Act-2 Scene-II)

The battle of wit that goes on between Isabella and Angelo rages on in the second interview. Also this time Angelo takes the upper hand and pushes Isabella into a tight corner. By suggesting that she herself is being merciless to her brother, she herself is now proving tyrannical towards her brother by not surrounding her virginity in order to save her brother’s life.

In the last scene of the play, mercy comes with a big bang. The Duke was merciful who takes back his power from Angelo. And with God-like sagacity, administers justice. He at first sentences Angelo to death, for having violated Mariana and also for having broken his promise to Isabella. Isabella now pleads for the Duke’s mercy in order to save Angelo’s life. The Duke relents and forgives Angelo after ordering Angelo that he would marry Mariana by being sure with that Claudio is after all alive. The play thus shows the triumph of mercy over justice.

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