“…like pow’r divine”: Authority and Good Government in Measure for Measure
(an anti-authoritarian critique)

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a challenging play that raises difficult questions and offers its interpreters no easy answers. Though it follows many of the conventions of comedy, its weighty subject matter and the disturbing nature of many of its plot devices makes easy categorization impossible. Facing rampant corruption and immorality in his city, the Duke of Vienna is nevertheless reluctant to impose harsh order himself. He places the strict and legalistic Lord Angelo in his stead to do the dirty work while secretly disguising himself as a friar and going down among the people. Inevitably, Angelo succumbs to the corruption of power, and the Duke executes a baroque conspiracy to bring about his downfall. Having revealed Angelo’s hypocrisy, the Duke abruptly pardons him. Though some critics have interpreted the Duke's actions as a Christian allegory, with the Duke discovering empathy and expressing the message of the Gospels by forgiving all. I will suggest that the Duke's actions are far from benevolent. Throughout Measure for Measure, the Duke displays a capricious nature, shows a lack of feeling for those he manipulates, and continuously usurps divine authority in his own name, upholding a conception of government in which an autocratic ruler uses clandestine and Machiavellian means to reinforce his power.

The Duke’s first actions in Measure for Measure are immediately problematic: he abandons his position of responsibility and entrusts his duties to another person because he does not want to fulfill them himself. He explains to Friar Thomas that his own lax enforcement of the law has led to a lessening of his authority: “so our decrees, / Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead, / And Liberty plucks Justice by the nose” (1.3.27-29). Friar Thomas responds with a rational objection to this complaint: “It rested in your Grace / To unloose this tied-up Justice when you pleased” (1.3.31-32), subtly suggesting that perhaps the Duke has neglected his responsibility. The Duke replies, “’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them / For what I bid them do; for we bid this be done / When evil deeds have their permissive pass, / And not the punishment” (1.3.36-39). Here he accepts responsibility for allowing his authority to wane, but desires to maintain both his reputation as a kind ruler, and his power as absolute authority: in his place Angelo will reinstate strict rule, “yet,” says the Duke, “my nature never in the fight / To do it slander” (1.3.42-43). Some have suggested that the Duke is testing Angelo’s character by giving him absolute power, as implied by his scene-ending description of Angelo, and the line, “Hence shall we see, If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.3.53-54). This portrayal seems even less flattering, revealing a man so negligent of his responsibility that he would give it up for the purpose of an arbitrary moral experiment.

Disguised as a Friar, the Duke goes to the city prison, claiming that he comes to give religious counsel. Here both his professed and covert motives are questionable. First, he falsely assumes the position of a religious official—an act which is both morally and ethically suspect for a man of faith and of civic power. Second, he seems to have come to the prison as a moral tourist—an act that could signify either callous curiosity or genuine desire to generate empathy. However, his first act is to take the confession of Juliet, who has become pregnant out of wedlock with the young gentleman Claudio, her betrothed—he then traumatizes her by bluntly revealing to her that her love is to be executed by Angelo’s decree (2.4.36-42). At this point, he seems satisfied with Angelo’s harsh sense of justice, and proceeds to advise Claudio to give up all hope of living, even though he has already stated that he is “prepared to die” (3.1.4). Thus, the Duke’s long, flowery, even overwrought speech about the utter baseness of human nature and the worthlessness of life seems superfluous—and easier for one to say who is not facing the executioner’s block!

When Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novitiate, returns from her audience with Angelo to relate the terms of his corrupt bargain—her virginity for her brother’s life—the Duke immediately asks the prison Provost that he be “concealed” (3.1.53) where he can eavesdrop on their conversation, reinforcing the theme of the Duke’s clandestine authority and manipulation of events. Eventually revealing himself, he inexplicably tells Claudio, in an aside that his sister cannot hear, that Angelo “had never the purpose to corrupt her; only he hath made an assay of her virtue to practice his judgment with the disposition of natures” (3.1.161-164). He reaffirms that Claudio will be killed the next day. Curiously, the Duke seems here to be projecting his own obsession with moral experimentation upon his imagined Angelo. To Isabella, the Duke reveals a past misdeed committed by Angelo (3.1.188-189)—perhaps reinforcing the theory that he has been testing Angelo’s character all along—and hatches an elaborate and morally ambiguous plot to ensnare him. The Duke claims that the “bed trick”—Angelo’s spurned fiancée will sleep with him in Isabella’s place—benefits both women, and thus “the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof” (3.2.262-263), but one wonders why he doesn’t simply confront Angelo and depose him? The Duke is not omniscient or omnipotent, but he seems to delight in behind-the-scenes maneuvers and manipulations. When Angelo treacherously orders that Claudio be executed in any case, the Duke’s machinations become even more disturbing, as he suggests that another prisoner be executed in Claudio’s place, “and his head borne to Angelo” (4.2.173-175). Worse, even when he knows that Claudio’s life will be saved the Duke tells Isabella that her brother has been executed. There is no moral lesson or judgment of character to be gleaned from this—here he is inexcusably playing God and toying with a woman’s trauma.

In Act 5 the Duke “returns” to the city in his civic capacity, but even still he continues his secret manipulations, playing the part of the imperious ruler as Isabella comes forward to denounce Angelo. Isabella is still unaware that the Friar was the Duke himself, and the Duke verbally abuses her, calling her a “wretched woman” (5.1.132) and having her carried to prison by armed guard. The Duke executes a complicated switch of identities, reemerging as the Friar, and then finally allowing his true identity to be revealed. One imagines that he must relish the surprise of the assembled crowd. Here his authority is reborn greater than ever before, as Angelo cries, “O my dread lord, / I should be guiltier than all my guiltiness, / To think I can be undiscernible, / When I perceive your Grace, like pow’r divine, / Hath looked upon my passes” (5.1.369-373). The Duke has become terrible, omniscient, and godlike. Isabella also implores the Duke that he pardon her for having “employed and pained / Your unknown sovereignty,” (5.1.387-390) submitting herself to his absolute rule. He continues to toy with her emotions, reiterating the lie that her brother has been executed. Finally, he brings in a muffled Claudio and reveals his identity to Isabella, compounding her presumed shock with a completely unexpected marriage proposal, “Give me your hand, and say you will be mine.” (5.1.495) The Duke metes out punishment to Lucio, a foolish rogue who had slandered him while believing that he was talking to the Friar, and completely pardons Angelo. At the play’s outset the Duke did not care for official leadership, preferring the covert influence of the Friar’s religious powers, but now Duke and Friar are combined into one—a priest-king wielding his judgment like God himself. The Duke becomes authority absolute.

This analysis is grounded in a modern, anti-authoritarian viewpoint. Shakespeare’s audience may have accepted as a fitting conclusion the monarch’s re-assumption of power, and his use of Biblical rhetoric to justify his actions. However, the Duke’s conduct does not seem wholly benevolent, and the comedy ends on a very distasteful note—Angelo, the virtual rapist, is free, and the Duke has bolstered his rule at the expense of others’ emotional trauma.