During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!
Measure for Measure appeared in our 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season. Kimberly West is an ASC Trustee and a practicing lawyer. She teaches Shakespeare and Trial Advocacy at the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Justice, justice, justice, justice” – A Lawyer’s Look at Measure for Measure
by Kimberly R. West, J.D.
Consider a city where vice runs rampant – brothels proliferate, drunkenness is the norm, all forms of sexual perversion are available for a price, and the city’s wealthy youth mingle with street operators. The police skirt the edges, either incompetent or venal. The mayor of the city has turned a blind eye to these problems. The laws governing public morality remain on the books but have not been enforced for some length of time. Where are we? Times Square in the early 1980s? Saigon pre-1975? Welcome to the Vienna of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It is a place we recognize.
In this Vienna, the ruling Duke of “dark corners” abdicates his office, dons a friar’s habit, and thus disguised undertakes a mission of spying on the state of morality in his city. (Keep in mind that the party line for a Reformation audience casts friars and nuns as prima facie villainous). The dubious nature of such an undertaking is reinforced by the war raging in the region with the King of Hungary; all of the Dukes must reach an agreement with Hungary or attack. The smoke of battle hangs heavily over the action of the play, further darkening the atmosphere and highlighting the deadly absurdity of the Duke’s actions in leaving his post.
Angelo, an untried deputy, is left in charge of “mortality and mercy in Vienna”. Under the Duke’s rule, the “strict statutes and biting laws” of Vienna have not been enforced for fourteen years (by some counts nineteen years – it seems no one is sure how long this state of affairs has existed). The Duke confesses the impact of his failure on the city: “liberty plucks justice by the nose / the baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum.” Angelo assures him that the law in Vienna will no longer be a “scarecrow,” but will see strict enforcement. Shakespeare immediately gives him an opportunity to do so. Vienna has a law on its books which prohibits fornication on pain of death. Lucio, a wealthy and promising young man, has impregnated Juliet, his fiancée. Angelo sentences Claudio to death as an example to all of the bite of the law.
Now, you say, while we thought we recognized the setting, we have left anything resembling modernity, and Shakesfear sets in – we simply can’t understand or relate to such a silly, archaic plot. Really? As you read this, fornication remains on the books as an offense in the State of Virginia – Section 18-2-44 of the Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Enacted 200 years ago, the law has not been enforced since the middle of the 19th century. While the Virginia Supreme Court invalidated the law in 2005 in Martin v. Ziheri, 607 S.E. 2d 367, following the US Supreme Court precedent of Lawrence v. Texas, the Virginia legislature has so far declined to repeal it. Adultery remains a crime on the books as well. And Virginia is for lovers?
Within this recognizable framework, Shakespeare explores justice, judicial decision-making, strict construction, lenity, and hypocrisy. Predictably, Angelo spectacularly falls, first sexually, as is fitting with his treatment of Claudio, and then murderously, ordering Claudio’s death despite the presumed Isabella’s acquiescence to his demands. These themes are not unique to Measure for Measure. In the areas of contract law and slander, Shakespeare sets up elaborate legal plot devices (or call them moots/hypotheticals used in the training of lawyers then and today) in many ways mirroring those of this play. For example, The Merchant of Venice explores the outermost limits of the enforceability of a commercial contract, and Much Ado about Nothing centers on the use of circumstantial evidence (think also Othello, The Winter’s Tale) in testing proof of infidelity. Both The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure star eloquent female advocates (all the great lawyers in Shakespeare are women!). Isabella, Claudio’s sister and soon to be a “sister” of the Order of the Poor Clares, pleads for her brother’s life with words echoing Portia’s pleas for mercy to Shylock to forego Antonio’s pound of flesh. Both Measure for Measure and Much Ado about Nothing poke fun at law enforcement — the inimitable Constables Dogberry and Elbow are sleuths of rare linguistic abilities.
Yet Measure for Measure, first performed and published well after Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, differs in tone from the other two plays. There are no green spaces of renewal, redemption, and transformation in Vienna. Structurally, a trial scene in Measure of Measure concludes the play – unusual in the legal procedural timing of Shakespeare’s trials. It is noteworthy that The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing culminate in double weddings. In the last forty-eight lines of Measure for Measure, however, the Duke orders not two, but four. Ironically, only one of these marriages is consensual and not coerced – that of Claudio and Juliet. There is little joy in the Duke’s match-making – Lucio ordered to marry a whore he has gotten pregnant; Angelo captured with the infamous bed trick which seals him to Marianna; and Isabella left speechless at the Duke’s proposal. Little wonder Measure for Measure has been labelled a “problem” play by scholars and audiences alike. Perhaps it is because this play, like no other in the canon, takes head-on the problematic question of legislating morality.
In Measure for Measure Shakespeare gives us two trial scenes, one at the beginning and one at the end of the play. Trials appear in two-thirds of Shakespeare’s plays – unsurprising, since lawyers and law students were (and are) a prime audience for Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare likely ate, drank, and argued with the lawyers and law students who frequented the pubs and private houses around the Blackfriars Theatre and the Inns of Court. The raw materials of legal life are transformed with great accuracy into Shakespeare’s drama.
The first trial scene occurs in Act 2, Scene 1 immediately on the heels of Angelo sentencing Claudio to death in Scene 1. In Scene 1, Escalus argues for a lesser punishment on the ground that Angelo, too, is subject to temptation. Angelo responds:
‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another to fall. I do not deny
The jury passing on the prisoner’s life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes. Who knows the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves?
Who indeed? Perhaps the litigants in Scene 2, which offers the very funny spectacle of the trial of Pompey, a pimp, with his witness Froth, a customer and a gentlemen of means, for the case of Constable Elbow’s wife. In a Kafkaesque mode, the trial proceeds until it becomes clear there is no coherent charge (Elbow speaks in the malapropisms of Dogberry) against Pompey for doing anything to Elbow’s wife. Escalus, left alone to try the case when Angelo leaves earlier with the advisory verdict of “whipping them all,” rules: “truly, officer, because he has some offenses in him that thou wouldst discover if thou couldst, let him continue in his courses till thou know’st what they are.” (2.2.193-196). My law students wittily staged this scene as an episode of “Night Court,” and highlighted the implicit textual echo of the Claudio and Juliet plot as a charge that Pompey has gotten Elbow’s wife pregnant. The surreal chaos of this scene, however, ends in a form of justice: no one is whipped, although all are warned. Intent, it seems, is to be treated differently than action.
The same result concludes the second trial scene and the end of the play – actions, not intentions, result in liability. No spoiler alert here – the multiple revelations at the end of the play await your trip to the Playhouse to view the different slants on the extremes of strict construction and disregard of the law that emerge in the last scene of the play. When Isabella cries for “justice, justice, justice, justice,” the Duke agrees, “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death / Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.” (5.1.465-468). Then Marianna pleads for Angelo’s life, and in kneeling to join her, Isabella secures her place as one of Shakespeare’s great advocates of law seasoned with grace, redemption and forgiveness. As Isabella puts it, “For Angelo / His act did not o’ertake his bad intent, / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects, / Intents but merely thoughts.” (516-519).
We, the audience as jury, have the final verdict on the world of this play, and it is indeed a troubling, indeed problematic play – grappling with tough issues essential to an ordered society. Recognizing the familiar terrain of this world, I submit, results in the conclusion that Measure for Measure should be acquitted of being a “problem” child, and join the ranks of Shakespeare’s great legal plays.