The Duke of Vienna has long neglected to punish lawbreakers as they deserve. He decides that the laws must be enforced, lest they fall into contempt. However, his wrath and judgement, visited directly upon his erring subjects, would be too terrible for them to bear. He accordingly announces his intention of making a journey to a far country, and appoints Angelo, a man of good reputation, to serve as his deputy in his absence. In fact, having left, he immediately returns disguised as a friar (with a hood or cowl conveniently covering his face throughout), so that he can see how his orders are carried out.
One of the laws of the city prescribes the death penalty for any man who has sex with a woman not his wife, and Angelo promptly passes sentence of death on Claudio, a young man who has gotten his betrothed, Juliet, with child. Claudio's only hope is that his sister, Isabella, might plead for his life and persuade Angelo to relent. Isabella has just entered a convent, but has not yet taken vows. Lucio, a bystander, goes to the convent with Angelo's message, and Isabella, though she disaproves of her brother's sin, agrees to make the effort to save his life. She goes to Angelo and, hesitantly at first, then with increasing warmth, urges him to pardon Claudio. In words remniscent of Portia's speech to Shylock in the Merchant Of Venice, she says:
No ceremony that to great ones '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 as mercy does. (II, ii, 59-63) Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once; and He that might the vantage best have took found out the remedy. How would you be, if He, which is the top of judgement, should but judge you as you are? O, think on that; and mercy then will breathe within your lips like man new made. (II,ii,73-79) Go to your bosom; knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know that's like my brother's fault; if it confess a natural guiltiness such as is his, let it not sound a thought upon your tongue against my brother's life. (II,ii,136-41)(cf. John 8:7; Matthew 7:1; Romans 3:23; 5:8; Psalm 130:3)
Angelo says that he will think it over, and tells Isabella to return the next morning. Left alone, he reveals that he has been smitten with Isabella's charms, and is obsessed by the desire to possess her. The next morning, he tells her that he will spare her brother's life in exchange for her sexual favors. She replies, "I would not buy my own life at that price, and I will not buy my brother's." She then goes to report to her brother. She might have told him simply that Angelo refused, but she tells him the whole truth, that she could have saved him only by yielding her virginity. Claudio is at first horrified, and says firmly, "Thou shalt not do it!" However, after a bit he loses his courage, and hysterically begs her to save him, at whatever cost. She responds by denouncing him as a shameful coward, an unnatural brother. (This has been thought by some readers to be heartless and hideous cruelty to a man condemned to death. Such readers need to remember the numerous movies in which several men are trapped in a situation where they are likely to be killed. One of them breaks down and starts shrieking and babbling. Another man slaps his face and says, "Snap out of it!" The first man, suddenly calm, says, "Thanks! I needed that." This, in effect, is what Isabella does for her brother. He had momentarily fallen apart, but her firmness brings him back to the moral principles which he shares with her. His moment of panic is over, and he apologizes and prepares to face death like a man. However, at this point, the Friar (that is, the Duke), who is present to give spiritual counsel to the prisoners, intervenes. He tells Isabella that Angelo was betrothed to a woman named Mariana, but repudiated her when the ship carrying her dowry sank and left her penniless. Mariana still loves Angelo and wishes to marry him. The Duke tells Isabella to agree to Angelo's offer, and to a night meeting. Mariana will take her place, and Angelo will be tricked into marrying the woman he is morally bound to marry.
We next see the "Friar" on the street with Lucio, who repeats to the Friar various bits of slanderous gossip about the Duke. However, from certain of Lucio's remarks, too often overlooked (III,ii,91-101,161), we see that he knows that the Duke, instead of going abroad as he had announced, has disguised himself as a beggar, and it seems likely that he realizes that the Friar and the Duke are one and the same.
Angelo has sex with Mariana, thinking her to be Isabella. But now he sinks lower. Fearing for his own safety, he breaks his promise and orders Claudio's death. He is aware of his own progressive moral deterioration, and expresses it in the lines,
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot, nothing goes right: we would, and we would not. (IV,iv,36)(cf. Romans 7:15,19; Galatians 5:17)
The Friar persuades the prison warden to fake the execution, deceiving both Angelo and Isabella. However, it is announced that the Duke is about to return and is approaching the city. The Friar tells Isabella and Mariana to accuse Angelo before the Duke.
The final scene is at the gate of the city. The Duke enters in state, and offers a hearing to all who seek justice. Isabella and Mariana step forward, but the Duke replies that Angelo is above suspicion, and retires, leaving Angelo to deal with the matter. Angelo learns that a Friar has been stirring up trouble, and orders that the Friar be arrested and produced. The Friar is produced, and is slandered by Lucio. who pulls back his cowl. All are stunned to see that the Friar is really the Duke. Angelo repents, confesses his sin, and acknowledges that he deserves death. The Duke orders that he first be married to Mariana, and this is done. He then orders Angelo to be beheaded on the same block where Claudio lost his head. Mariana, who loves him, begs the Duke for his life. The Duke refuses. Isabella after a moment of hesitation, kneels beside Mariana and asks mercy for Angelo, even though he has killed her brother. The Duke pardons Angelo, and produces Claudio alive. Lucio, who has had a child with a prostitute, Kate Keepdown, and has promised her marriage, is compelled to keep his promise. Finally, the Duke asks Isabella to marry him. So we have Lucio married to Kate Keepdown, Angelo married to Mariana, Claudio married to Juliet, and the Duke married to Isabella. Four marriages, and with that the play ends.
What are we to make of this play? Some critics take it to mean simply that sexual morality is a sham, and that those who preach it are of all mankind the least likely to practice it. On their view, Angelo (obviously), the Duke (sneaking around scheming and rearranging people's lives behind their backs), Isabella (who claims to love her brother, but will not do a little thing like having sex with Angelo to save his life), Mariana (who helps to deceive the man she claims to love), are all a pack of disgusting hypocrites. Lucio, who professes no morality at all, is the only likeable one in the lot.
This interpretation runs into difficulties. Would we really approve of a Claudio who let his sister save his life by giving her body to a man she rightly despised? And if we would not, can we blame her for agreeing that she ought not to do it? Again, there is a scene (II, iii) in the prison, where the Friar counsels Juliet, the pregnant betrothed of Claudio. She loves Claudio. She acknowledges that it was wrong of them both not to wait until they were married. She repents her sin and is ready to bear the shame that she views as the just consequence of her actions. The scene overflows with charity and humility. To read it cynically, one would have to be very resolute in ignoring the beauty of spirit and the holiness that shine from Juliet.
For an alternative approach, let us try to imagine ourselves in the position of an audience accustomed to seeing Christian themes portrayed on stage, and accustomed to stories with multiple levels of meaning. What might they see as significant in the major characters of this drama?
We begin with the Duke of Vienna (who would also have been, although Shakespeare does not mention this, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), a great ruler and lawgiver who chooses to hide himself. He tells us that his unveiled wrath visited directly upon miscreants would be too terrible for them to endure, and so he entrusts the task of administering justice, and correcting wickedness and vice, to a lesser authority. He works indirectly and behind the scenes, as it were, to accomplish his purposes. To a Christian observer, this suggests God in two ways. First, although we believe that God makes the lilies of the field, we do not see him at work making them in the same way that we may stop by a potter's shop and see him making a pot. Second, when God is made visible in this world, it is not as an emperor, but as one who is born in a manger because there is no room in the inn, as the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head, as the executed outlaw laid in a borrowed sepulchre. So it is that the Duke in this play retires from public view and is seen only as a wandering friar, bound to a life of poverty and of service to others.
Some of his lines suggest an association with Christ. For example, he begins by telling Angelo that he has a reputation for virtue, but that virtue must be put into practice. He says,
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, not light them for themselves; for if our virtues did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike as if we had them not. (I,i,33-36)This echoes the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount:
Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to the whole house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Mt. 5:15f)In a later scene, the Duke/Friar says:
I come to visit the afflicted spirits here in the prison. (II,iii,4f)Again, this line echoes the passage (1 Peter 3:19) in which we are told that Christ, put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit, "preached to the spirits in prison." Most Christians in Shakespeare's audience would have understood this to mean that Christ, after dying on the Cross, descended into the realm of the dead and there delivered Abraham, David, Isaiah, and a great multitude of Old Testament saints, from the power of death--what is called the Harrowing of Hell. Whether the modern reader accepts this interpretation is not the point. The Friar has come to preach to "the spirits in prison." Christ is said to preach to the spirits in prison. The use of the word "spirits" here is sufficiently unusual to rule out co-incidence.
So the play suggests that the Duke is a symbol of God or of Christ. He entrusts the task of administering justice, and correcting wickedness and vice, to human authority. Thus Angelo appears to be a symbol, or perhaps simply an example, of the State. Alas, kings and princes are sinners like the rest of us, and power corrupts.
Isabella represents the Church, the Bride of Christ. We first meet her with one foot in the convent, so to speak. She desires a life of contemplation, but is summoned to action in the world, to reclaim and restore fallen sinners, such as Claudio. She begins by showing charity, in pleading for Claudio's life. Next, she is tested as to her chastity, tempted to cut corners with the state in the hope of accomplishing good thereby. She passes the test. She passes another test in her conversation with Claudio. She could have simplified matters by telling him simply that Angelo had refused to pardon him, and that there was no hope, period. (We all find ourselves, from time to time, having to explain something to someone and thinking: "No need to mention that matter--it would only confuse him!" Perhaps the temptation is especially acute for the Church, or those speaking on behalf of the Church in one context or another; but it is a temptation that everyone faces occasionally, even perhaps when explaining something to himself. "Let's not go into that aspect of the matter. It will only confuse the issue.") But Isabella does not shrink. She trusts Claudio with the whole truth. Thus, she passes the test of honesty. In the final scene, she brings herself to intercede for Angelo, to seek mercy for one who has injured her and hers. Thus we see the grace of Christ at work in her, preparing her for heavenly glory and union with himself.
The one character who seems to have penetrated the Duke's disguise is Lucio, who in many ways seems to be simply a spirit of mischief. The name "Lucio" suggests "Lucifer." However, it would be a stretch to see Lucio as Satan, as ultimate evil. He is at most a demon, a devil, a rebel, a cynical prankster, a spirit of mischief.
We may pause to note one line of Lucio's, in which he tells Isabella that if the Duke had been present, her brother would not have died (IV,iii,163ff). In the story of the raising of Lazarus, Mary and Martha each say to Jesus: "Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (J 11:21,32) Thus, this line suggests in passing an identity between the Duke and Christ.
So, how do we sum up the play? It is a play about mercy and forgiveness, about love and marriage. Angelo begins by appealing to Justice, and denying that he needs mercy. He finds himself as guilty as Claudio, and in need of the same mercy that he had denied to Claudio. And he is given mercy. Isabella forgives him his injuries to her and her brother, and asks that his life be spared. It ends with marriages, four of them. At the top of the ladder, so to speak, we have the marriage of the Duke with Isabella, in which we may see a type of the marriage of Christ with His Church. Next, we have Claudio and Juliet, who had intended marriage all along, but postponed it to negotiate a dowry settlement. Next, Angelo and Mariana, where the bridegroom had jilted the bride when her dowry was lost, but where a penitent groom and a loving bride arguably have a reasonable chance of working toward a sound relationship. Last of all, we have Lucio and Kate Keepdown, a marriage that Lucio has called "worse than hanging." Even here, however, there is hope. We already know that he is given to comic exaggeration, and may suspect that his protests are partly intended simply to raise a laugh. Having been told firmly that he must face his responsibilities, he may actually end up a devoted husband and father.
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