"'Tis Set Down So in Heaven, but Not in Earth": Reconsidering Political Theology in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

By Goossen, Jonathan | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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"'Tis Set Down So in Heaven, but Not in Earth": Reconsidering Political Theology in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure


Goossen, Jonathan, Christianity and Literature


Abstract: How to govern a state in a Christian way is a question central to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. In the play, Duke Vincentio is often thought to demonstrate the importance of tempering justice with mercy, in contrast with the rigid legalism of his deputy Angelo. This essay argues instead that like Angelo and the Puritans of Shakespeare's day, the Duke's governance conflates spiritual with temporal law and personal sin with public crime. Only the novice Isabella perceives both the similarity and consequences of their thinking and rejects it in favor of a more traditional political theology that refuses to make Christ's spiritual teachings into legal requirements.

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Civil government's relationship to the Christian faith of its officers is central to Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The play's opening lines are spoken by a Duke to his fellow statesman: "Of government the properties to unfold" he begins, making this, as Debora Shuger observes, both "the only Shakespeare play to begin with [an] overt thematic statement" and "to have an (equally thematic) biblical title" (1). (1) This pairing of government and gospel is at the heart of the difficulty many interpreters have had with the play, and has as its locus the political theology of not only Duke Vincentio and his deputy Lord Angelo, but the novice Isabella. The opinion one forms of the Duke's governance in particular tends to act as a sort of weather vane that predicts how one will react to the other two characters. Those who find it to be legitimate and compassionate and to yield wise and humane judgments usually see Angelo and his actions as puritanically self-righteous and malicious. Isabella is by this token a student of the Duke, who, by instructing her in the primary Christian imperative of mercy, rescues her from a blunt legalism similar to that of Angelo. (2) On the other hand, those who find the Duke's methods suspect for their secrecy and underhandedness see Angelo less as a personal moral Puritan than a sort of modern tyrant, ruthless in his desire for total power and control over his subjects. The two thus form complementary portraits of authoritarian political power that subverts opposition to it. In this scheme, Isabella becomes something of a figure of resistance to the state, rejecting its claim to total power by asserting herself as an individual and a woman. At play's end, she is seen to be ambivalent toward the Duke and incredulous at his concluding offer of marriage. (3)

What is rare in criticism is belief in the Duke's sincere benignity coupled with a questioning of his general approach to governance. Likewise, little of virtue is ever found in Angelo's initially earnest political philosophy. Isabella, finally, only ever ends up philosophically opposed to a suspect, not to a benevolent, Duke. This rearrangement of more typical critical scenarios, though, can better explain the political and theological positions these characters take in the play. By sharing English radical reformers' strong disregard for the nature of political and religious office and the traditional division between the functions of church and state, the Duke actually bases his governance on the same principles as did they and Angelo. Though a kinder, gentler one, he is a philosophical and theological Puritan nonetheless, attempting to deal with the personal spiritual issues of his subjects by means of the state's public law. Accordingly, only Isabella's initial political opinion, expressed in her first discussion with Angelo, is contiguous with that of the Duke. By play's end, she rejects the Duke's equations of private intent with public act and of sin with crime, and affirms the wisdom of a more moderate and traditional political theology.

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The various conceptions in post-Reformation England of the role of church and state and of priest and king are rooted in the medieval political understanding of the dual realms of spiritual and temporal authority.

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