The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview
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One of the major concerns that pervades the Shakespearean canon is the nature of justice. The issue is dramatized primarily from two perspectives. Under some circumstances, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law collide, so that a specific legal decision, though in accord with official statutes, may nonetheless seem unjust. Under these conditions, Shakespeare suggests, the law should be regarded as a living entity, which must be tempered by understanding. Second, we confront the relationship between earthly and divine justice, a conflict sometimes expressed metaphorically in the image of the “wheel.” We must, therefore, place matters of the day-to-day world against those of eternal import.

Both aspects of this theme are paramount in Measure for Measure, in which Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, temporarily takes leave from his post as Chief Magistrate and gives all authority to Angelo, whom the Duke regards as a man of strict morality: in the Duke’s words, “Lord Angelo is precise” (I, iii, 50). Angelo fulfills this expectation by sentencing young Claudio to death for impregnating his fiancée, Juliet, outside marriage. Escalus, an older lord, petitions for the sentence to be reduced, suggesting that all of us are vulnerable to temptation. Angelo, though, remains relentless:

’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,

Another thing to fall. I 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.

(II, i, 17–22)

He thus refuses to compromise a legal principle.

In desperation, Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to enter a strict


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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide


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