1/ I still think the Duke goes around pulling all the strings because he wants to test everyone in Vienna. Some readers and viewers of the play complain that the final two acts drag on for too long when the Duke could easily remove his disguise and set everything right, but I don’t think he’s just interested in justice, in setting everything right—I think he wants to experiment, to test everyone to their very limit.
The question is, of course, why? Perhaps he’s bored, never having had much interest in governing. Perhaps he wants to study human nature. Perhaps he wants to play God. Perhaps he turns everything upside down and begins anew when he returns to power, having given the citizens of Vienna a taste of tyranny. Perhaps he wants to demonstrate to everyone, especially those in power, the danger of bias and the impossibility of establishing the truth when we’re in a “he said, she said” situation.
2/ Barnardine is the minor, seemingly inconsequential character in Shakespeare that interests me the most, because he’s the only character in Measure for Measure that the Duke cannot control.
“BARNADINE […] I will not consent to die this day, it’s certain.”
(Act 4 scene 3)
For all his game of playing God and manipulating everything, the Duke also cannot control Lucio’s mouth, but in the final scene, Lucio inadvertently plays into the Duke’s game when he slanders Friar Lodowick (the Duke’s disguise) and thus puts Escalus to the test as a judge (which he fails, coloured by his misjudgement about Angelo). And later, the Duke can punish Lucio by forcing him to marry a prostitute.
Barnardine on the contrary cannot be controlled, cannot be swayed. He refuses to get pulled into the Duke’s elaborate plot. He would prefer not to.
3/ When I reread Hamlet or King Lear, I saw more layers of meaning and understood them a bit better.
But when I reread Measure for Measure recently, it puzzled me even more—I’m still in the dark—it’s a baffling play.
For example, people tell me that Measure for Measure is about mercy. But do you notice the absurdity of Isabella’s call for mercy for Angelo?
“ISABELLA […] My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died.
His act did not o’ertake his bad intent,
And must be buried but as an intent
That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts.”
(Act 5 scene 1)
How is it justice that Claudio has to die for “fornication”? How is it just intent when Angelo forces Isabella to trade her virginity for her brother’s life—which doesn’t become “action” only because the Duke intervenes and gets Marianna to change place with Isabella—and then deceitfully lets Claudio be executed anyway? What kind of mercy is this?
We can imagine what Shakespeare would have thought about Claudio’s “crime”—Anne Hathaway was pregnant on their wedding day.
4/ The Duke is, in his way, also a tyrant.
Look at the resolution.
He makes Angelo marry Marianna: Angelo doesn’t want her, and she ends up with someone who doesn’t care for her.
He makes Lucio marry the prostitute who has a child with him: Lucio doesn’t want her, how do we know if she wants him?
He “proposes” to Isabella: she never says yes, and we all know she wants to become a nun.
Isn’t that tyrannical?
This is not me imposing a modern perspective on the play—Shakespeare depicted over and over again forced marriages, in Romeo and Juliet, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in The Merry Wives of Windsor—we can deduce what he must have thought about them.