A duke of dark corners


Last night I watched again Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, and the 2006 film of Measure for Measure.  The latter is, among other things, a play about bad government, by a duke of dark corners, and someone he gets to do the job in his reputed absence.  He has not done his job as ruler for a long time, a very long time:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws,

The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,

Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,

Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,

That goes not out to prey.

The result?   There ‘goes all decorum.’  But when the substitute mounts a drastic crackdown, then, in the words of Milton, ‘all hell breaks loose.’  But this paragon of ice-cold virtue – when he makes water, it is ‘congealed ice’ – is in turn corrupted.  He seeks to suborn a subject.  The protest contains these lines:

O, it is excellent

To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.

And –

… But man, proud man,

Dressed 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.

The film is not for the purist.  It is pared back to the bone to raise the issues with the pungency we associate with Greek tragedy. The play is notoriously difficult to put on.  The comedy sits very edgily with the drama.  The film deals with that problem by deleting almost all the comedy, and leaving out Barnardine and most of Lucio (who was hilariously played by Richard Piper in an MTC production years ago.)

I have forgotten what a whack this play can give, and how instructive it is about what happens when the law is not applied or abused.

For those who might be interested, which should include all lawyers, I said the following about the work elsewhere.



Sweet sister, let me live.

More than our brother is our chastity.


The most morally charged of the plays of Shakespeare is Measure for Measure.  It keeps putting up moral questions for the judgment of the jury constituted by the audience.  It is therefore ironic that the title of the play comes from that part of the Sermon on the Mount that instructs us not to judge lest we be judged.

The ruler of Vienna has not enforced its strict laws relating to sex for fourteen years.  Sexual licence is rife, with the consequent diseases.  The ruler decides to stage an absence and appoints a strict, ‘precise’ deputy to enforce the laws.  The ruler, the Duke, looks on disguised as a friar.  The deputy, Angelo, sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for getting a young woman pregnant.  The crime is fornication.  The sentence is legal but inequitable.  The sister of the condemned man, Isabella, pleads for his life.  Angelo becomes infatuated with her, and offers to spare Claudio if she goes to bed with him.  She is revolted, the more so when Claudio thinks that this may not be too high a price for his life.  The disguised Duke somehow manages to save the day by deceiving Angelo into believing that he has bedded Isabella and executed Claudio when neither is the case.

The play is said to be a ‘problem play’.  These plays give us an uneasy and unvarnished look at our dark side, our mean side, our low side – our ordinarily low side, not our tragically failed low side.  If this play were a painting, we would say it was a painting with ‘edge’.  If properly performed, which it rarely is, it is as entertaining a play as this author has left us.

The most obvious political lesson of this play is one that we did not need Shakespeare to teach us.  All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The Duke invests power in Angelo as a kind of test or experiment:

… Hence we shall see

If power changes purpose what our seemers be (1.3.53-4).

The Duke gives his deputy ‘absolute power’ (1.3.13) and Angelo is corrupted absolutely.  This is corruption in the pure sense, because Angelo uses his position to extort personal advantage, or at least he tries to do so, and in so doing betrays the confidence placed in him and acts against the interests of those whom it is his duty to protect.  By offering to spare a criminal in return for a night of lust, Angelo betrays his own view of justice which requires him to:

… pity those I do not know

Which a dismissed offence would after gall (2.2.101-2).

Justice is for sale.  Within days of his appointment, Angelo is reduced to the level of a judge in Indonesia or Russia.  He also reminds us of those US politicians, and J Edgar Hoover, who launch crusades against gays while propositioning young male members of their staff.

Nor should the Duke have been dismayed.  Angelo could have been carved out of stone.  (Lucio is a little more crass.  He  says that when Angelo makes water ‘his urine is congealed ice’:3.2.113.)  Angelo is a man of ‘stricture and firm abstinence’ (1.3.12), a ‘precise’ man who ‘scarce confesses that his blood flows’ (1.3.51-2).

This, then, is a cruel experiment on the part of the Duke, to get this precise, prim piece of work to bring the boom down on the gay blades and knock-shops of the suburbs of Vienna.  It would be like sending a lay Baptist preacher to clean up a speakeasy in Chicago in the twenties, or the principal of St. Catherine’s to correct the language of drinkers on the terrace at The Storm.  They would be lucky to be offered the alternative of a brown paper bag or a baseball bat.

When the Duke told Angelo of his appointment, he said that ‘mortality and mercy in Vienna’ lived in his ‘tongue and his heart’ (1.1.44-45).  The Duke was more than flirting with veracity here, since he knew very well that Angelo, the precise Angelo, would always be longer on mortality than mercy.

The failure of governance, as we would now call it, which gave rise to this problem in Vienna was twofold.  First, Vienna had made laws relating to morals – in particular, sex –  that were too strict or ‘biting’ to be adhered to by a large part of the people.  We have seen this in our time with laws on abortion.  The result is that the laws are not enforced according to their terms.  The result then is that the operation of the law depends not on its own terms, but on the workings of functionaries.  That is, the laws become political questions rather than legal solutions.  We can see this when a Bill of Rights is stated so absolutely that its meaning and effect has to be determined by an unelected body, the judges.

We saw this also in Australia with capital punishment.  The law imposed the death penalty for murder, but for about fourteen years – the lapse of time referred to in the play (1.3.21) – the sentence was commuted.  When a government broke that custom and went ahead with an execution on the grounds of its own dictation, and not those of the law, it was in the eyes of many guilty of murder.

And so it would have been in Vienna.  The Duke knew that it would go badly for him if he just sought to enforce the laws out of the blue – this would be seen as ‘tyranny’ (1.3.36) – which is precisely what it would have been, a capricious reversal of fortune at the whim of the government, unfounded in the laws of the city as custom had rendered them.  It does not cease to be tyranny merely because the governor, wanting the courage of his own convictions, ducks for cover and appoints a deputy.  And not just any deputy.  Old Escalus would have been shrewd and warm enough to have been malleable, but the precise Angelo was going to be anything but malleable.  He was always going to be ‘absolute’.

And so Angelo finds that it is his turn to play the part of that most dreadful threat to a sane and sensible judiciary – the tyro judge who will be the new broom and clean out the stables, which he looks down upon so absolutely, according to his own preconceived ideas – his agenda, if you prefer – and to hell with the consequences.  These interruptions happen about once in a generation – this is our doom – and the crowd correctly says that the people responsible are mad.


This threat of government by men rather than government by laws pervades the play.  The corruption of Angelo leads him not to apply the law.  He had resisted the pleas for mercy by Isabella, saying that it was not he but the law that condemned Claudio (2.2.80).  That simply begs the question on the power to commute or reprieve, in the same murderous way that Sir Henry Bolte did when he refused to commute the sentence on our last hanged convict in Victoria.  Isabella correctly observes that Angelo could pardon the prisoner ‘and neither Heaven nor man grieve at the mercy’ (2.2.50) and all Angelo can do is to say – again pointlessly – that the plea comes too late.

Isabella then warns Angelo against abusing his strength by abusing his power (2.2.108).

Now, laws are administered by people – laws do not administer themselves.  But people administering the laws must act according to the laws.  It may be that the only safe way to neutralise the corrupting effect of judicial power is by having a jury of people selected at random from off the street (and we are in the process of getting rid of the jury).  Otherwise you are left with the problem of every ‘pelting petty officer’ using ‘Heaven for his thunder’.  While Angelo is behaving like a swine, the author puts pearls before him.

… But man, proud man,

Dressed 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 … (2.2.117-122)

These deathless words should be cast in marble in every court in the country.

The fall of Angelo might be a tragedy in the traditional sense.  As a result of his ‘firm abstinence’, he has wondered how men might fall for women (2.2.186).  Now he knows, and he finds himself on a knife edge.  Having sat on his humanity and suppressed his nature, he found it was time to unlock the gorilla.  We are now sickeningly familiar with the sequence and the consequence.  Whatever else strict abstinence has done for Angelo, it has not left him well balanced.  He is a victim of his own flight from life – of his own virginity.  Are we still so unbalanced – so prejudiced – that we do not say the same for Isabella?

So, the play has touched on two problems that arise when we sit in judgment on others.  What right do we have to set ourselves up to judge others when we are all afflicted with the same frailties?  How do we protect ourselves from the title of one source of this play, The Corrupt Magistrate?

The fault of this Duke has not been just that he has not enforced the laws for a generation.  When he has sat as a judge, he has been one of the two-speed sort – nought and flat out.  With the Duke, it was all or nothing – freedom or death (4.2.136).  This is the worst kind of judge.  There is no law, only the digestion or humour of the official posing as a judge.  Appearing in front of a judge like this is like hitting a tennis ball against a brick wall that is divided by a Plimsoll line – except that the line is invisible.  This is the type of judge who betrays the law – they do not discharge their duty to decide cases according to the law.  They are guilty of moral cowardice. They are also bone lazy.

Vienna has another problem.  There appears to be one law for the city and one for the suburbs – one law for the better people, and another for the rest; authority against anarchy, nuns against punks, chapels against brothels.  Lucio flits between the two and his frank assessment of each is probably as embarrassing to one as to the other.  But the only connecting link lies in that part of human life that we now denominate by the three letter word ‘sex’.  As Tony Tanner remarked, sex is at least potentially ‘a great leveller’.  If you had to choose between the rank flesh and sweat of the knock-shop and the heartless hysterical rigidity of a chapel, you might pause.


That brings us to the Ice Maiden, Isabella.  We are told that the founder of her Order, Saint Clare, decided to put herself in the hands of God when her parents asked her to marry.  We do not know what sent Isabella to the Order, a very strict one according to the books, but when we first meet her she is one of those painfully deluded soi-disant believers whose warped minds lead them to believe that it is easier and safer to get close to God by denying their own humanity than by facing and embracing the humanity of themselves and others.  It is the kind of retreat from the world, itself a kind of moral cowardice, that Gibbon railed at.  Ascetics, he said, ‘obeyed and abused the rigid precepts of the Gospel, and were inspired by the savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant’; for them, ‘pleasure and guilt are synonymous terms’.

And not just Gibbon.  Measure for Measure is about the conflict of law and equity, earthly rule and the Sermon on the Mount: but it is also about the conflict between the Church or the clergy and the Sermon on the Mount.  If a decree of the clergy is contrary to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, which is to prevail?  Kant had no doubt at all, and shaped much of his thinking, and got into trouble, to assert the primacy of the word of God over the word of man.  ‘Rule by clergy [pfaffentum or clericalism] therefore is the constitution of a church to the extent to which a fetish-worship dominates it, and this condition is always found wherever instead of principles and morality, statutory commands, rules of faith, and observances constitute the basis and essence of the church’.

In the film Chariots of Fire, the professional coach told his neurotic acolyte that the 100 metres sprint was tailor-made for neurotics.  Isabella and Angelo are neurotics who are tailor-made for each other.  They are both virgins, heading for a bonfire of virginity.  They are what we would now call control freaks (and so is the Duke).  They might also be called absolutists.  Isabella sees this.  She refers to someone ‘as absolute as Angelo’ (5.1.54-5).  (Perhaps her own absolutism is one of the things that attracts Angelo to her.)

We see what we would now call the repressed nature of each of these characters almost immediately they appear on the stage.  In the fourth line that Angelo utters (1.1.48), he asks for some more tests to be made of his mettle before he is promoted.  In her third line (1.4.4), Isabella is seeking a ‘more strict restraint’ than apparently then offered by the sisterhood of St. Clare.  They are both, in the common phrase, buggers for punishment.

Isabella must have had something.  This cold-hearted refugee from the world spends about half an hour with each of the two leading men of the State, and each of them propositions her as a result – one for a one night stand, and the other for life.  Was it that she was a novice?  A nun?  That she could give as good as she got?  That she had a mind as well as a body?  That she was just innocent?  That she may have appeared to be out of reach?  Or that she was just one of those unhappy creatures who seem to call for violation?  Were the men maddened at the thought of this woman becoming a bride of Christ?  Was she terrified that if she gave in to Angelo to save the life of her brother, she might be disqualified from that race, even though her own Saviour had consorted with prostitutes?

It is a measure of his sex driven madness that Angelo tells Isabella that if he cannot have her, he will torture her brother to death (2.4.166).  All this in the city that gave us Sigmund Freud. Angelo and the Duke are examples of those characters who are mesmerised by innocence.  (Pontius Pilate may well have been another.)

Now, it is fair to say that the conduct of Isabella toward her brother may have been better received in 1604 than it is in 2009.  But it must have been hard even then.  Claudio remarks, not unnaturally, that ‘death is a fearful thing’ (3.1.117) and prays:

Sweet sister, let me live (3.1.133).

For that he gets called a beast, has his parenthood questioned, and is told to die quickly.

Then, Isabella, live chaste, and, brother die.

More than our brother is our chastity. (2.4.184-5)

Question answered.  Equation denied.  Irrefutably.  As someone said elsewhere, ‘Yours in the ranks of death’.  There are dark and carnal secrets here. Isabella comes near to rapture when her brother says that if he has to die, he ‘will encounter darkness as a bride’ and hug it in his arms (3.1.84).  A brother becomes a bride of death so that his sister may become a bride of Christ.

Isabella is confident that Claudio will die a martyr’s death.  Heaven awaits him.  In the nature of things, the martyr is not so enthusiastic.  He would prefer another two generations to elapse before he ascends to God.  He is after all facing death for giving life.

This, then, is an appalling example of how wrong we can be when man-made doctrine is allowed to overrule the simple greatness of the Sermon on the Mount.  Tony Tanner has a beautiful line from Langland.  ‘Chastity without charity is chained in hell.’  In truth, in her fall, Isabella mirrors Angelo in his fall – these two fanatics are both prepared to put their adherence to their calling to a strict test – the need to enforce the law to the letter, or to preserve a rule regardless – over the life or decency of another.  In so acting, each is guilty of that moral failing that is perhaps our ultimate threat – the readiness to sacrifice humanity – real people – for a mere idea.

When Isabella is induced to break her moral code by lying, her extenuation is merely that ‘the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof’ (3.1.263-4).  The ends, for Isabella, therefore justify the means.  If it took a saint to catch a saint, it would also take a thief to catch a thief.  Two things.  This rule does not apply where her own physical or moral condition is concerned.  The loss of the head of her brother does not warrant the loss of her spotlessness.  His losing his life does not warrant her going into sin.  Secondly, the maxim that the means are justified by the ends can lead to unpleasant consequences in the hands of people like Napoleon or Hitler.

Doubtless Isabella still has her champions.  Her champions would be of the ‘Be absolute for death party’ (3.1.5).  This is one of those maxims that is easier said than done – unless someone else does the dying.  Geoffrey Bullough says that the argument of Claudio that nature dispenses with a sin to save a life has ‘a specious plausibility’.  He argues that the law Isabella ‘serves is one above Nature; and she conquers in the struggle between natural affection and supernatural injunctions’.

An invocation of the defence of superior orders does not become any more attractive than the version rejected at Nuremberg just because you invoke the supernatural.  At least the Wermacht and the SS knew that Hitler was there.  The contrary is the case now. People who drive planes into tall buildings are not heard to justify their actions by saying that they were acting under orders from God – some supernatural injunction..  And it would certainly inflame the sentencing court if they described the result of their struggle between natural affection and obedience to God as a ‘conquest’ for God.  But if the point is that the tenet of the church that Isabella was asked to contravene is non-negotiable, this would be in character for her as an ‘absolutist’ of a very heartless kind.

One of Bullough’s sources is Augustine De Sermone Domini in Monte (the Sermon on the Mount).  Augustine appears to countenance a woman giving up her body to a cruel governor in order to save the life of her husband.  The passage of the centuries means that the reasoning of the Saint may not now command the universal assent in every part of every household.  He appears to have countenanced the surrender of the wife if the husband asked her to do so since ‘the conjugal master of her body to whom all her chastity was owed’ could proceed on the footing that he was ‘disposing of a matter properly his own’.  Geoffrey Bullough thought the reasoning somewhat dubious but said that in any event ‘no brother could rightfully demand the ‘monstrous ransom’ of a sister’.

However that may be, it is the absence of a guilty motive that makes baseless the fear of Isabella that she ‘by redeeming him / Should die forever’ (2.4.107-8).  Was there a God ever conceived, let alone this one, who could so punish a human being for an act of redemption?

It follows that insofar as Isabella denied Angelo because her acceding to him would lead to her dying forever, she was impaling herself on a false dilemma.  After all, even our law has sufficient charity generally to require the finding of a guilty mind before it finds that someone has committed a crime against its laws; and a moral law that lags behind the strict law faces serious problems.  And if we are wrong there, which is a real possibility, we may find it hard not to follow Gibbon in concluding that the God of this ascetic – Isabella – is indeed a tyrant.  And that just may be a true dilemma for Isabella.

But let the divines say and the ecclesiasts rule as they may, we may stay with the text that the author has left to us.  We might merely reflect that when our law has to resolve moral questions, it tends to refer the issue to the conscience of the court, or the general verdict of an inscrutable jury.  (We are, after all, the product of the Protestant Ascendancy.)  The first is what the lawyers call equity.  If Isabella were to proceed on the basis that she should act according to her conscience, she may not take long to decide.  She has to live with her decision, and her brother might have to die because of it.  For what it is worth, that proposition may not leave all that much room or need for juggling.

(The play does refer to our other method of resolving moral issues.  Habsburg Vienna would not have had much time for juries, and Angelo was expressing an English view when he said that a jury of twelve would have one or two ‘Guiltier than him they try’ (2.1.21).  The same may go for judges.)

Isabella prefers the gloss of the commentators to the words of the text. This problem  bedevils our law.  Common lawyers feel uneasy when they stand before a naked act (statute).  They need to baptize it into their tradition and then drench it in their gloss.

How stands it, then, with the Duke, the character perfectly described by Lucio as ‘the Duke of dark corners’ (4.3.159-160)?  Born to reign, rather than to rule, the Duke lets his state go to waste; then he refuses to apply the correction himself; then he chooses the wrong deputy in an experiment on live subjects that goes badly wrong; then he enjoys himself playing puppet-master –he is a real live boss at last! – while posing as a priest and deceiving his subjects with news that is both false and hurtful.  Meanwhile, he cannot get either Lucio or Barnadine to obey him.

It is silly to compare this Duke with Prospero.  Prospero is out to avenge his ‘high wrongs’.  This Duke meddles about while mired in his own mediocrity.  He is another control freak, but a badly failed one, and a worse hypocrite than either Angelo or Isabella.  That, you might think, is a very large statement, but the Duke pretends to adopt the high moral ground even though the whole problem has arisen only because of his gormlessness.

Then, while fraudulently imposing himself on believers as a priest, he takes confession and then boasts of having done so (5.1.530).  It is hard, off hand, to think of a more complete or despicable betrayal of faith or a breach of trust, and this in a city that was to give such a warm welcome back to Adolph Hitler.

And then, suffused – no flushed – with his own goodness, he propositions the novice nun.  Is this an abuse of office?  Of course it is.  It is the abuse of two offices.  He has won the confidence of Isabella while posing as a priest.  (We do not know if he took the confession of Isabella as well as that of Mariana, but if he had been asked to, he would not have hesitated – he was into that kind of game, a kind of loaded charades.)  Then he seeks to benefit from using his power to save the brother of his target.

The difference between Angelo and the Duke is that Angelo promised to save Claudio after Isabella has gone to bed with him; the Duke saves the brother, and then seeks his reward in the form of a more permanent coming across – from someone young enough to be his daughter.  It is conduct in a public office of such an awful kind that it would warrant the promotion of its holder to the highest rank in politics.

That is why the author left open the response of Isabella to the limp-wristed proposals of the Duke, and why the best productions show her giving the Duke the cold shoulder. The RSC, it is said, shocked its audience in 1970 when it showed Isabella rejecting the Duke.  Forty years later, assuming that women have raised themselves above the status of serfs in the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, it might come as a serious shock to the sensibilities of audiences now to see Isabella accept the proposition.

The final delinquency of the Duke is his failure to execute due process of law on Angelo.  If you are going to have a death penalty, and if it is to be applied by due process rather than personal decree, Angelo had to suffer it.  (Remember that Claudio was sentenced to death for ‘fornication’).  Angelo traduced the office of a judge.  He attempted to rape Isabella – and that is undoubtedly what it was, an attempted rape.  He then attempted to murder Claudio.

The Duke lets all of this go, and not for reasons that are light years away from those that corrupted Angelo.  He, too, is infatuated with Isabella – he must be if he is asking her to marry him – and he wants to impress her.  Opinions might differ on whether this abuse of power is worse than Angelo’s. Some think  that it is, since the consequences of his abuse of power may be more terminal.

Two things might be said in extenuation of the failure to execute Angelo.  First, everyone appears to have been very sensitive about executing people.  You have to be certain that the condemned are ready to die.  (Remember the ghost in Hamlet?)  This was urged on behalf of Claudio (2.2.83-4) and, hilariously, by the self-confessed murderer and drunk, Barnardine.  He simply declines to die because he had been drinking all night and peremptorily shuts the Duke up when the Duke dares to suggest the contrary (4.3.54-63).  (Barnardine, like Lucio, has a clear-headed view of the world, and looks sane by comparison to the three heroes.  It is part of the high dramatic technique of this playwright that their outlook comes out in scenes of surrealist comedy that might remind you of the Goon Show or the brothel scene in the Ulysses of Joyce.)

Secondly, as John Fletcher remarked, the idea of tragi-comedy is to bring none to death but some near it.  But, of course, only for the author is this an excuse.

The year before this play was put on, 1603, James I came to the throne and observed:

Laws are ordained as rules of virtuous and social living, and not to be snares to trap your good subjects: and therefore the law must be interpreted according to the meaning and not the literal sense. 

These conflicting impulses run through the law and equity of both Rome and England.  They led to a dog’s breakfast in the Vienna of our play.  Two people to come out of the play enhanced are the Provost and Mariana.  When asking Isabella to plead for the life of her then husband, Angelo, Mariana says:

They say, best men are molded out of faults:

And, for the most, become much more the better

For being a little bad. (5.1.442-4)

Well, as someone said in another play, for this relief much thanks; nor may it hurt to be a little mad as well as being a little bad.

The modern film set in a  British base in post-war Germany is well worth a look, but the performance by Kate Nelligan for the BBC is both riveting and peerless.

Measure for Measure shows  us what Milton called ‘darkness visible’.   The problem then is that these characters seem to us in some way so much more real than those that paddle about in our own little duck pond.  This effect of this play on us, and its insight into our dark corners, are an enduring testimony to the matchless humanity of its creator. The play continues to reveal to us truths about us and our laws, when we seek to apply the laws too hard or too softly, or when we let people put themselves above the law – or when we put the laws too far above people.


Tanner                       Comedies, Vol 2, p clxvi

Gibbon                         See, S P Foster, Melancholy Duty, Kluwer, 1997, pp 191, 213                

Kant                           Religion within the Boundaries of Reason, Hlisaarp, 1960, p 167-8

Tanner (Langland)   above, p clxiv

Bullough                     Vol.2, p 408

Milton                         Paradise Lost, 1.63

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