A close reading paper for English 340, Shakespeare: Later Plays, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Michelle Dowd, written on 9 April 2009 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
The Rhyme and Reason of Justice
by Matt Wallace
At the end of Act 3, Scene 1 of Measure for Measure, in lines 481-502, Shakespeare has the Duke, who is disguised as a friar, deliver a soliloquy in the form of a poem written in couplets. His use of poetry in the speech dramatically sets it apart from the prose so prominent in the play.
In the beginning of the poem, the Duke’s tone is deliberate and measured; his speech sounds like a rational philosophical discourse. He uses each the first three couplets to express an individual aspect of proper justice. The use of rhyme creates a sense of coherence and order which emphasizes these qualities of justice. Also, this use of rhyme reflects the coherence and order that ultimately results from the exercise of justice. The Duke begins by establishing the authority and requirements of a ruler: “He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe” (481-482). The power of a ruler originates with God and is a reflection of the divine. Accordingly, a ruler must be both righteous and strict when administering justice. He continues by noting the importance of education and wisdom for a ruler: “Pattern in himself to know, / Grace to stand, and virtue go” (483-484). A ruler must learn how to exercise justice fairly. He must know when to be lenient and when to show no mercy. He concludes his discourse with the principle of equality: “More nor less to others paying / Than by self-offences weighing” (485-486). A ruler must hold himself to the same standard by which he judges others.
In the next three couplets, the Duke’s tone is indignant and agitated. Couplets four, five, and six maintain rhyme but end with exclamation points. The Duke continues to make cogent points, but he is clearly becoming more emotional. This change suggests that the Duke’s thinking is less rational and that his exercise of justice may end up being less than ideal. The Duke first condemns hypocrisy in general: “Shame to him whose cruel striking / Kills for faults of his own liking!” (487-488). He is restating Jesus’s injunction from the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2). He then condemns Angelo’s hypocrisy specifically: “Twice treble shame on Angelo, / To weed my vice, and let his grow!” (489-490). Again, he is echoing Jesus: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye” (Matthew 7:5). He concludes with a description of the hypocrite: “O, what may man within him hide, / Though angel on the outward side!” (491-492). The playing of a false part lies at the core of hypocrisy. Ironically, the Duke is acting in the guise of a holy man. With this couplet, Shakespeare makes an ironic turn which calls into question the Duke’s scheme to restore justice.
In the next two couplets, the Duke’s tone is rational and deliberate as ponders his course of action. Couplets seven and eight maintain rhyme and are paired as a question. This suggests that the Duke’s subsequent scheme is the intentional product of a properly functioning mind in spite of its questionable methods and aims. The Duke asks himself: “How may likeness made in crimes / Make my practice on the times / To draw with idle spiders’ strings / Most ponderous and substantial things?” (493-496). He realizes that similar crimes have resulted in dissimilar punishments; the weak have been judged and condemned while the powerful have escaped justice. His problem is how to exercise his power to rectify the situation he has inadvertently created by yielding that power to Angelo.
In the final three couplets, the Duke’s tone is again rational and deliberate as he plots out his scheme. Unlike the earlier couplets, the rhymes in couplets nine and ten are separated in different sentences; the earlier pattern returns in the eleventh, and final, couplet. This suggests that his scheme is inherently flawed. The Duke outlines his plot: “Craft against vice I must apply. / With Angelo tonight shall lie” (497-498). He intends to use a clever ploy to overcome wickedness. Shakespeare’s use of an end-stopped line followed by an enjambed line suggests that the Duke’s craft is lying, ironically a form of wickedness. He continues: “His old betrothed but despised. / So disguise shall, by th’ disguised” (499-500). Again, the end-stopped line within the couplet suggests that the Duke’s scheme is flawed. With the rhyme in this couplet, Shakespeare appears to denigrate both the Duke’s use of a disguise to pursue justice and his scheme which is a corruption of justice. He concludes: “Pay with falsehood false exacting, / And perform an old contracting” (501-502). In an ironic play on the Old Testament standard of justice, “an eye for an eye,” the Duke offers “a lie for a lie” as his standard and sees it as the fulfillment of an existing covenant.
With the Duke’s poetic speech, Shakespeare expresses his idealized conception of justice and emphasizes the thematic importance of justice within the play. He also suggests that corrupted justice is no justice at all. By placing this speech at the end of Act 3, Angelo’s corruption of justice is punctuated with the intimation of the Duke’s coming corruption of justice.
The Bible. King James Version.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 2nd ed.
New York: Norton, 2008. 2048-2105.