Measure for Measure has been considered a problem play since it raises problematic issues that are left unresolved. The play mainly centers around the problem of justice and mercy. In the course of the play, we found the workings of both justice and mercy. There are scenes in which justice predominates and there are others in which mercy dominates. However, it is mercy which ultimately rings supreme.
The play begins with the necessity of establishing justice against the weakness of the merciful administration of the Duke. Because of too much leniency, his administration fails. Angelo, the deputy of the king (Duke) gradually revives all the dead laws. He rules the country with an iron rod. He enforces his strict law first on Claudio. He is sentenced to death for making a girl pregnant before marriage. This is undoubtedly just according to the demand of the law. But the complexity arises when the question of mercy enters. Even the magistrate considers it hard and rather tyrannical to implement the death sentence of Claudio. In spite of their suggestions, Angelo remains adamant. He proves himself totally impartial when he says that he himself was ready to take the same punishment having committed the same crime.
The problem reaches its climax with Isabella entering the scene with her famous and brilliant speech on mercy. Justice and mercy are brought face to face. Isabella’s interview with Angelo is the contention of justice and mercy. Apart from raising some problems regarding the particular case, the confrontation gives rise to some basic general disturbing issues about mercy and justice. Some of the conflicts brought out by this are the conflict between law and humanity, the conflict between the laws of society and the biological and psychological laws of human nature, and between charity and chastity and so on.
Angelo respects the demand for justice and Isabella represents the need for mercy. Isabella recognizes the demands of justice but her fascination is to the greatness and divine beauty of mercy. She says that mercy is a noble quality and more suitable symbol than a king’s crown, a mayor’s sword, a military commander’s baton, a judge’s robe as a symbol of authority. In Angelo’s statement, Claudio is a forfeit of the law, so he can do nothing. Isabella promptly refers to the original sin as forfeiture of all mankind and Christ’s mercy as the only redeeming method. She further says that Claudio is not the only man to commit the offense, so Angelo should show pity. Angelo says that his punishment is a pity for others. Isabella’s last argument is to look at her and find out if he does not feel any temptation to such a sin. By now Angelo begins to be affected and asks her to meet her the next day.
During the interview with Isabella with Angelo, the problem becomes more complicated. Angelo has now completely overcome his passion for Isabella. Now his only wish is to enjoy her sexuality. He openly proposes her to surrender her virginity as a price for obtaining a pardon for her brother. Now, the issue is far Isabella’s part, a conflict between chastity and the desire to save her brother’s life, while for Angelo, it is a conflict between justice and lust. Isabella is ready to save her chastity even at the cost of Claudio’s life while Angelo is ready to possess her at the cost of anything. At this point, both mercy and justice disappear in their conflict.
Justice along with mercy backs with the presence of the Duke. He saves Claudio’s life, takes away authority from Angelo, and is sentenced to death for killing Claudio. However, he is exempted from death as Claudio’s presence disproves his guilt of murder. Finally, the Duke shows indiscriminate mercy to all other offenders. Now, this sweeping forgiveness has raised criticism about the justification of it. Nor is this criticism altogether invalid. The only possible answer is that from the very beginning, we see that mercy dominates the Duke’s character. Therefore, the play shows the triumph of mercy over justice.