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“Law is framed as a rule or measure of human acts,” says Thomas Aquinas, and “different things are measured by different measures.” Human “measures” or laws direct men to the common good; the divine law undergirds it, indicating what it means to be and to be good.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is about what happens when the human measure usurps the role of the divine measure, when the state tries to be church for its people. The result is a darkly comic vision that eerily mirrors the swelling governmental bureaucracies of the Western world.

The play opens on a lax Vienna, whose carefree ruler, Duke Vincentio, has allowed morals to grow flabby by not enforcing vice laws. The Duke realizes he can’t rein in the wild horses he let loose, so he appoints the unimpeachably upright Angelo to corral the city’s roving morals. The Duke then vanishes but stays in the heat of the action, disguised as a Franciscan priest.

Unfortunately for Vienna, Angelo proves himself both merciless and corrupt. He decides to make an example of Claudio, an ardent young man who has gotten his fiancée in the family way, by condemning him to death for violating the fornication law. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a postulant in a convent of Poor Clare nuns, gets an unwelcome surprise when she pleads for mercy for her brother: Angelo will only give Claudio his freedom if she gives Angelo her virginity.

Here the disguised Duke steps in, carefully guiding the course of events by acting as spiritual advisor to all and sundry, orchestrating an oh-so-Shakespearean riot of faked executions, mistaken-identity nighttime trysts, and role reversals, culminating in a public David-and-Nathan revelation where Angelo’s lies are revealed, Isabella’s chastity is preserved, Claudio’s life is spared, the Duke returns to his throne, and everyone ends up married to everyone else.

The superficially happy ending does not resolve the moral tensions of the play, however. At any moment during the preceding five acts, the Duke could have revealed himself and stopped the agonizing chaos of betrayals, threats of death, and trials of virtue, but instead he plays the puppeteer, dancing the characters along to the ends he desires. The play sheds light on the Duke’s moral ambiguity by emphasizing the dangers of dying unshriven, when the Duke’s priestly imposture endangers the souls of the condemned men whose confessions he plays at hearing.

The crises of the play are driven by the Duke’s desire to be both church and state to his people. He creates moral dilemmas that can only be resolved by the combined action of his two personas: priest and ruler. The result is seemingly the best of both worlds”the justice of the state and the mercy of the Church.

But in the end the state cannot give true mercy”only measure for measure. The Duke wears the robes of the Church but can only act according to human notions of justice, making sure everyone gets his just deserts. The play’s one act of true Christian mercy—when Isabella pleads for the Duke to spare the life of Angelo, who she believes has killed her brother—also gets suborned to the power of the state when the Duke closes the play by extending a curious offer to this postulant nun: matrimony with him. Although the play does not divulge her answer, the Duke assumes the affirmative.

The Duke must bring all things into the natural realm that he controls—even Isabella and her free Christian mercy. Everything must be done measure for natural measure, which requires all couples to be paired off in matrimony.

But is this a happy event? Considered superficially, the play has a comic ending”all the characters are joined in marital bliss, there are no unjust deaths, the innocent are freed, the guilty are duly punished, and a just and righteous ruler returns to the throne wiser for his absence. But a dark shadow looms over the joy, as the Duke’s actions seal the total dominance of the state in the life of the Viennese; the Church, morality, and even individual freedom are only tools grasped in what Philip Shaff once called “the cold step-motherly arm of the nominally Christian state.”

This is where America finds itself today. Now that separation of church and state has come to mean a public square naked of all religious claims, the state has filled in the gaps by arrogating to itself the functions of a religion. The state is the premier moralizer of the day, as any resident of New York knows, proclaiming the new morality with banal new revelations like taxes on cigarettes to the tune of seven dollars a pack, bus stops plastered with public service announcements about safe sex for “eldersexuals” (don’t ask), and restaurants blissfully purged of those murderous trans fats.

But the state no longer rests content with regulating moral issues; the last few decades have seen a spate of governmental attempts to tinker with reality itself. Consider any of the state’s blithe pronouncements redefining what it means to be human: a fetus is not a human until it’s illegal to abort it, terminally ill people are happier dead than alive, humans are able to be satisfied by any conceivable sexual coupling, marriage is whatever the state says it is, and on and on. Man’s measure has subsumed God’s measure.

The risk for us is the same as it was for the Viennese in Shakespeare’s play. Even when the state claims divine authority, it can only act in fallible, human ways. No amount of legislation can actually change what it means to be human, but the more a state tries to alter our nature by legal fiat, the harder life becomes for ordinary citizens, who now must act as if a life in utero were not a life, or as if the union of two men were the same as the union of a man and a woman.

Man must live by two measures, human and divine. The Duke’s world and ours—in which the human has subsumed the divine—seems free and easy at first glance, but behind the comic veneer lies a dark realm of unresolved suffering, as man’s laws alone cannot heal the frailness of man’s nature. As the troubled, vicious Angelo opines, paraphrasing St. Paul:

Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right: we would, and we would not.

Gabriel Torretta, OP is a summer fellow at First Things and is studying for the priesthood in the Dominican Order.


Monica R. Weigel, Entertaining Shakespeare: The Storm Theatre’s As You Like It

Robert Miola, Searching for the Soul of Shakespeare

Thomas Hibbs, Julie Taymor’s Tempest

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