Isabella and Angelo

A very tangled situation arises in one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, Measure for Measure. This is to say nothing particularly arresting; after all, what do we come upon in any of his plays but tangled situations? We all know the agonies and cross-currents in Hamlet and Macbeth, of course. (To my own mind, King Lear is the greatest of all of the plays; but who will quarrel when it comes to these daunting sweepstakes?)

In any event, in Measure for Measure, we find that things lie on the hither side of tragedy. Readers will recall that a tragedy is a story that ends in death; a comedy, strictly speaking, is a story that ends in marriage (or, we may say, in everyone living happily ever after). In his later years, Shakespeare moved on past tragedy and sheer comedy to some plays that have been called “late romances,” or, sometimes, “problem comedies.” What you find in plays like this is a situation that threatens to whirl down into tragedy but that is plucked up in the nick of time and salvaged.

Measure for Measure is such a play. The Duke of Vienna has decided to go off for a break from his onerous duties, and appoints one Angelo, whom he seems to trust, to be his deputy. The joker in this pack is that Angelo, while a generally admirable man, has no self-knowledge. When he steps into power, he suddenly becomes an inquisitor, blithely unaware of his own feet of clay. He sets about rooting up all sin from Vienna.

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Now this might seem all very well in theory. But such a draconian scheme has never, alas, worked in our mortal situation. It can’t be done. And, to add to the fun, Angelo falls into the very sin on which he has fixed his scrutiny, namely sexual immorality. He wants to expunge all harlotry and fornication from the city — and then does his best to seduce young Isabella, a very pure maiden indeed. She has come to him to plead for the life of her brother Claudio who has got a certain Juliet with child, and of course he hails Isabella with the predictable bargain: Favor for favor, lady.

And we are off and running. Angelo is, for the moment, omnipotent, so Claudio is doomed unless Isabella cooperates with Angelo’s cynical proposal. At first she is cold. Right: Claudio has sinned, the law looms, so there we are. She, a virgin herself, is not eager to beg on behalf of carnal squalor. But then pity for her brother percolates into her mind. Oh, Angelo. . . . In the course of her efforts to plead with Angelo, we have some of the most touching lines in all of Shakespeare.

She mounts a plea for mercy (at which point we hear Portia’s “the quality of mercy is not strained” echoing across from The Merchant of Venice):

No ceremony [symbol of power] that to great one’s [be]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.

Not a chip flies from the enamel of Angelo’s rigor. “Your brother is forfeit of the law,/And you but waste your words.”

Whereupon Isabella reaches for eternal fixities:

Alas, alas! 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 judgment, should
But judge you as you are?

Outside of Sacred Scripture it would be hard to find a more succinct summary of the human situation and the grace of Christ.

In our own mild and amiable epoch, one does not often hear preaching that so starkly grasps the nettle. We sinners are doomed, having “come short of the glory of God,” as St. Paul puts it. In the days when the Te Deum was still sung in church, Catholics heard the phrase, “We believe that Thou shalt come to be our judge.” This is not a favorite theme in modern catechesis. Our forerunners feared the Last Judgment. They were encouraged to think of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell).

Isabella obviously was well catechized — and she assumed that Angelo was, too. But that story — our story — did not stop with judgment. The remedy was found — by God, not us. The very One who had the warrant to take the most dire advantage of our plight was the One who offered His mercy. It cost Him His life (what is that in the Chalice which is offered at Mass?). So, dear Angelo (who comes around in the end), and me: Bring that to mind when you judge another mortal. And recall it often in your prayers, with thanks.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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