Measure for Measure feels very familiar and relevant: Politicians and church leaders more interested in personal gain than the good of the populous. Church v. state, or church and state v., rather than for, their constituents. While I’m not an anarchist, this play could push me down that path. The heads of both institutions seem to loose theirs in their own hypocrisy and self-serving self absorption.
As the play opens, the Duke of Vienna prepares to temporarily abdicate his power to the strict Angelo while he takes a sabbatical: “In our remove be thou at full ourself/Mortality and mercy in Vienna/Live in thy tongue and heart.” (I,i,43-5) It is unclear why he is leaving, where he is going, or why he thinks Angelo qualified to stand in his stead. The Duke, who has taken his leave in a Friary, reveals that he fears he’s been too lax a leader, and rather than correcting this himself, he leaves town and leaves the mess for Angelo to clean up. The holy father points out the obvious: he ought to have tidied up his own mess: “It rested in your Grace/To unloose this tied-up justice.” (I,iii,32-3) The Duke not only takes refuge in, but masquerades as, the church for most of the action, posing as a friar and further blurring the fuzzy line between the two.
Angelo acts swiftly and harshly as interim leader, condemning Claudio to death for fornication (with his all-but-official wife)(for the all-but part).Claudio’s sister Isabel leaves the convent where she’s about to take her vows to plead with Angelo for her brother’s life.
The ensuing action shows the worst of both institutions. Angelo will not relent, no matter how absurd the charges. He is determined to mark his territory with this ruling and show himself to be a paradigm of virtue worthy of the Duke’s trust… Until he offers up to pardon Claudio in exchange for Isabel’s virginity. This deal, which Isabel of course dismisses out of hand, shows him to be no better – and at heart worse – than the parade of comical criminals who punctuate the play’s graver action. He morphs into the devil, offering up Claudio’s life for Isabel’s soul.
When the hooded Duke sneaks back into town to see how things are going in his absence he is duly appalled. But rather than dropping the charade and putting his political foot down, he tiptoes around as a friar, concocting an absurd and elaborate scheme involving mistaken identities and trickery (this is, after all, a Shakespearean comedy) to solve the problem. The play could and should have ended in Act II, scene iii if he had grown a pair and taken the Angelo bull by the horns and gelded him then and there.
The Duke does eventually manage to pull off the charade and sort of set things right, but we are left not with relief and joy, but rather with an awful aftertaste because, as The Who say, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” He seems more interested in entertaining and making himself look good than providing swift, firm resolution and justice. We feel like the Duke will be as effective going forward as the play was entertaining. Not very.
And as he pats himself on the back, sure everyone is as pleased by the denouement as he, he asks Isabel for her hand: “Dear Isabel,/I have a motion much). She neither accepts nor demures; she reacts with stony and telling silence. No one else says a word. The Duke, as the representation of ineffectual church and state has not only the last word, but most of them in the last act.
There is no joy at Claudio and Isabel’s reunion or his pardon and freedom. Angelo seems neither repentant nor reformed, even though the Duke admonishes him to make good on his broken promise to a former fiancé. Neither the church nor the state have proven themselves to be particularly effective, benevolent, or fair. It’s unusual for a comedy’s ending to fall so flat, but it seems to reflect the sad state of affairs – both political, religious, and of the heart, in Measure for Measure.