Measure for Measure: The Complex Relations of Justice, Punishment and Mercy

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Measure to Measure is one of the most exquisite pieces of work by Shakespeare. It is a dark comedy play in five acts that are based on the complex interactions of justice, mercy, and punishment. It opens with the Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, commissioning his deputy, Angelo, to take charge of governing of the city as he travels to Poland. In reality, the Duke goes nowhere but instead disguises himself as a friar to watch what unfolds in his absence (Collins 671). Angelo comes out as a stickler to the rule of law as he passes a death sentence verdict to Claudio who was convicted of impregnating his betrothed. Isabella, Claudio's sister, comes in the picture to urge Angelo to be merciful to him.

The acting ruler seems rigid in changing his decision; however, his last over Isabella's purity and virginity makes him change his mind. As such, he accepts to reverse the decision if she agrees to have sexual intercourse with him. The disguised Duke comes into play again by organizing a rendezvous in which Isabella is switched with Mariana, a woman who was initially engaged to Angelo but have parted ways since (Sumner 119). As Angelo goes back on his promise, Vincentio comes in to settle scores. Angelo is forced to marry Mariana; Claudio is allowed to marry Juliet. The entire play is based on serving justice to different aspects of controversies existing in the city. The essay aims to critically discuss the elements of justice in the play and how justice and punishment are regarded in the process of solving various social evils in Vienna.

Justice in the Play

At the onset of Angelo's reign, after the Duke left him in charge of the city, he seems to be a morally upright person whose main aim is to deliver justice as provided to his city. A critical analysis of the entire play depicts a natural progression of criminal justice that is adequately demonstrated by the different characters in the play (Sumner 121). Act one is created in such a way that Angelo appears to hold and convey hardline punishments to anybody who breaks the law. The latter is shown when he passes a death penalty on Claudio for illegally impregnating Juliet. This type of justice system is a clear representation of the measure for measure or an eye for an eye kind of justice. Cox states that while both Angelo and Vincetio desire to have a functioning criminal justice system in the city, it appears protecting their reputation is more important (343). As such, the Duke leaves his deputy in charge with the aim of protecting his reputation. By act two, Angelo is shown to have fallen for his corruption, an incident which puts his integrity in question.

In addition, Isabella is also depicted as giving a different approach to justice; and that is seeking mercy for his brother Claudio. Her system is closely aligned to the New Testament version of the justice system, in which despite the wrongs done by an individual, mercy could be offered to give them a second chance to prove their remorse for their original deeds (Chedgzoy 138). On his part, the Duke also comes with a system in which he uses marriage as a form of settling the outstanding moral issues in his territory. He offers a set up that allows reconciliation and progress without far-reaching consequences falling upon the guilty. In the end, it is worth concluding that the play does not seem to advocate for an ideal justice system (Collins 674). That is, the ideal justice system is curtailed by the desire of those in power to protect their reputation.

Equity of Justice

The play is marred by many instances where the equity of serving justice is measured. Isabella, whose intention was to become a nun, is used to represent the conservatives in society. She is allowed to plead the case of his brother Claudio, and what we see is her begging Angelo to exercise mercy on her brother (Sumner 130). This context reveals the kind of conflict of ideologies to which she is exposed. As depicted in her own words, she admits that the brother committed a crime. However, since Claudio was her brother, Isabella finds it necessary to plead for mercy on his case. The occurrence is an indication of inconsistency in terms of how justice is to be delivered. One wonders what she could have proposed in the instance that the accused was not her brother.

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A vice that I most do abhor,And most desire should meet the blow of justice,For which I would not plead, but that I must;For which I must not plead, but that I amAt war ‘twixt will and will not

Her expressions in the excerpt demonstrate the fact that she is conflicted with her own belief on the concept of justice. She then chooses mercy as the best form of showing justice to the brother instead of actual execution as passed by Angelo. Furthermore, it is shown that Isabella is ready to sin in exchange for mercy to her brother. As such, it is worth concluding that her perception of mercy is not that which replaces justice but rather mitigating form. She does not talk of equity in the delivery of justice but instead, pushed the notion of mercy aimed at seasoning the judgment that had earlier been passed. It is for this reason that she pulls Angelo into comparing if the situations were flipped (Chedgzoy 140). That is, what could he do if it were him being accused of the same incident that Claudio was charged for.

Apart from the notion of justice held by Isabella, the Duke's deputy is also faced with a moral issue. When he promises to forgive Claudio in the instance that Isabella agrees to have sex with him, his conviction to holding the rule of law comes into question. This reaction portends the thought that the rule of law is applied selectively and that punishment can be varied depending on benefits obtained from an individual (Cox 343). Angelo, who initially was presented as a right person who adheres to the law is neither good nor evil in any part of the play. This is because, when he was given a chance to rule over the case that Claudio was accused, he thought of only the law. However, at the point when Isabella comes to plead for her brother, Angelo gets to have second thoughts, agrees to commit the same crime with which Claudio was accused (Collins 670). As such, one could easily conclude that justice and punishments are not the same to everybody in society, depending on the ruler. While Angelo's behaviour may lead to one believing that there is variance on how justice and punishments are passed for various sins, the Duke comes out to set the record straight and make judgments that ensure justice is served without preferences (Sumner 127).

As shown at the end of the play, when Vincentio returns from his supposed journey, Angelo is discredited because of the mistakes he did while still on the throne. He is ordered to marry Mariana. Furthermore, the equity in dispensing justice is encountered when Claudio is saved from execution majorly because the conditions set by Angelo earlier had been met. In addition, the irresponsible woman chaser, Lucio is forced to marry a whore whom they had earlier gotten a child with. Therefore, one can conclude that in as much as Angelo appeared to be a stickler to the rule of law, his human traits betrayed him, whereas, Vincentio who formerly could be seen as biased dispenses justice without any preference.

Forms of Justice in the Play

The play depicts the use of various forms of justice in ensuring that the law of the city is followed effectively. The coming of Angelo to power portrays the use of strict justice system as a means of solving the various cases in which the city finds itself. In fact, people tend to wonder how he has managed to give life some laws that have only existed in theory (Sumner 111). The latter can be demonstrated by the fact that at the time of arrest of Claudio, he wonders why the rules that have always been unused by the Duke are suddenly being applied. This is demonstrated by the phrase ‘like unscoured armour, hung by the wall’(1.2.167). Mercy is also valued and used as a form of justice in the play. While still unsure of her view of mercy, Isabella brought the idea to Angelo. Chedgzoy argues that she tries to persuade him to offer mercy to her brother. In the end, we find that Claudio is saved from the rather definite execution (132). The mere act that Angelo considered forgiving Claudio, at the exchange of sex with Isabella indicates that there are instances in which one could be shown mercy in Vienna (Collins 672). In another instance, the impenitent murderer Barnardine with whose execution could have worked to help in the plan of the Duke to save Claudio; reprieve is given because of the fact that he casually in a drunken manner proclaimed that he was not ready for death.


The play portrays punishment as an important aspect of solving criminal acts within society. The latter is shown in two different ways; that is, punishment as a power of the state designed as a means of curbing the unruly passions of people (Cox 343). In addition, punishment is used as the fate of religious Christians who in one way or the other offend against the moral rules of their religion. The latter is demonstrated when Angelo in the earlier scenes, speaks to the reasons as to why he applies the law as being identical (Chedgzoy 124). He says that the harsh justice he applies in Vienna is necessary because it is God’s law and Vienna’s. While the leaders are quick to apply punishment to everyone who goes against the laws, the play expressly displays instances where those quick to punish have something dark in their lives to worry about. On the other and, the Duke appears to be a fair punisher. That is, he can ensure that Angelo is held accountable because of what he had done (Sumner 128). Angelo initially had stopped marrying Mariano because of the lost dowry, opted to have sex with Isabella in exchange of Claudio’s freedom, as such it was his turn to receive the punishment by marrying the lady he had earlier engaged and left.


The play Measure for Measure is a clear representation of how societies struggle with implementing laws in their settings. Angelo is used to effectively portray that in a society, justice must always be rendered without preference. However, on the flipside, human nature is depicted when he falls on the sins that he effectively chastises. Isabella, who represents the conservatives and Puritans in the society, is used to educate the nation that there are instances where mercy must be applied in the process of dispensing justice. In the end, the Duke tries to level issues affecting the community by trying to ensure that mercy and justice are served equally to everyone in society.

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