One of the huge blessings of modern life is that you can carry the complete works of Shakespeare around in your pocket, to be read whenever you like, or have got tired of Angry Birds.

I last read Measure for Measure in 1995 and don’t think I was paying as much attention as now.  In any case, I am not sure how it ends, which is delicious as the plot is set up beautifully.  I have just read and reread that wonderful scene between Angelo and Isabella where the latter pleads for her brother’s life, the brother being condemned for getting his girl pregnant.  In the course of it all, Angelo evokes classic principles of justice from an unforgiving right wing point of view.

Be you content, fair maid;
It is the law, not I condemn your brother:
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him: he must die tomorrow.

Prevention by fierce example:

The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept:
Those many had not dared to do that evil,
If the first that did the edict infringe
Had answer’d for his deed: now ’tis awake
Takes note of what is done; and, like a prophet,
Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils,
Either new, or by remissness new-conceived,
And so in progress to be hatch’d and born,
Are now to have no successive degrees,
But, ere they live, to end.


Yet show some pity.


I show it most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss’d offence would after gall;
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies to-morrow; be content.


So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he, that suffer’s. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

Isabella also makes some beautiful points about how authority gets away with different standards:

Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

That in the captain’s but a choleric word,
Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.

The irony comes as Angelo falls in love with Isabella and finds himself tempted to the very same crime he wishes to punish with summary execution. This all reminds me of Tory ministers, back to basics, 1994-7, lots of after-confessions.   (though I can’t helping thinking, with Twitter and McClennan and all that, that it is now the Captains who are not allowed the choleric word, while the mere soldiers blaspheme all too readily).

I am otherwise reading Sandel’s Justice.  Will be very interested to know if he uses any Shakespeare, who is quite clearly superior to every clunking political thinker in history.


7 thoughts on “Angelo, classic Tory?

  1. The ending to MFM sort of crap. Sorry.

    And yes Shakespeare is better than clunking political theorists. And literature can philosophize in ways that philosophy paradoxically can’t (hence the double genius of Nietzsche). But let’s not fall into the trap of believing all political theorists are clunking, because the best most certainly aren’t.

  2. Yeah he’s fairly poor IMO. His book ‘Democracy’s Discontent’ is even worse than the one you’re reading (had to read DD for a class last term, tore into it for about 10 mins straight with my tutor laughing).

  3. “The irony comes as Angelo falls in love with Isabella and finds himself tempted to the very same crime he wishes to punish with summary execution.”

    Worse than that, he tries to exploit her, demanding sex in exchange for clemency for her brother. Fortunately the tables are neatly turned on him (I won’t say more, it’d spoil the plot!).

    I saw Measure for Measure a couple of years ago and I think it’s rather good (and I wouldn’t call the ending “crap”, though in order to achieve a happy ending Shakespeare does have to slightly strain the audience’s credibility at one point).

    Politically, it’s an excellent example of “absolute power corrupting absolutely”. And Angelo is perhaps more Hugo Chavez than Tory – we’re not just talking about extramarital affairs, but serious abuse of power.

    1. Thanks for these interesting comments.

      Something else that makes a modern reading of the play difficult is that the horrible crime that Isabella is being asked to subject herself to is no longer seen as a soul-destroying matter. Would anyone now regard this as such a terrible dilemma now a days?

      1. Well, she doesn’t like Angelo (that’s an understatement!), so I think his attempt to blackmail her into sex with him to save her brother’s life is quite clearly attempted rape. (Ignoring the whole fornication/loss of virginity angle which I agree is very different now.) After all, if we follow Locke’s definition of coercion as threatening to harm someone if they don’t do what you want (as opposed to a perfectly legitimate inducement which benefits someone if they do do what you want, like a contract of employment) Isabella is clearly being coerced.

        Rape doesn’t have to involve physical violence; the lack of consent is what matters, and coerced consent is a contradiction in terms.

      2. Yes, of course: I by no means intended to downplay the nastiness of what was going on here – or any similar thing nowadays – and its very real criminality.

        But I suppose the way Shakespeare was presenting it was to play it like a mirror image of what goes on with Claudio and Jules his girl, and much worse for Isabelle being a holy sister. So much more the offence against the divine order not to commit adultery.

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