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1. Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, being desirous of introducing reforms into his government, particularly along the line of public morality, announces that he is to travel in distant lands, and delegates his authority to Angelo, a man renowned for probity in public and purity in private life. Instead of leaving the city, the Duke assumes the habit of a friar and remains to watch secretly the actions of his deputy. Claudio, a young gentleman of Vienna, wrongs his betrothed, Juliet, who is with child by him. Though the lovers contemplate early marriage, Claudio becomes amenable to an old law—till then obsoletewhich fixes capital punishment for his sin. And the stern Ingelo, anxious to make a striking example of the first offender brought before him, sentences Claudio to death. The latter's sister, Isabella, is on the point of entering a nunnery, but being advised of her brother's peril, resolves to intercede with the deputy.
II. Angelo vigorously prosecutes his work of reform in morality. In his zeal he has scant time for mercy; and Isabella at her first interview with him can obtain no leniency for her brother. But she awakens in Angelo a passion that had hitherto lain dormant in his cold nature. At her second interview with him he proposes in so many words that she purchase her brother's pardon with her own honour.
III. The virtuous maiden spurns the proffered terms and hastens to Claudio, in prison, whom she exhorts to prepare for death, since his life can be procured only by her disgrace. Claudio at first upholds her decision; but the fear of death weakens his resolution and he implores her to yield for his sake. Isabella, deeply angered, is on the point of leaving him to his fate, when the disguised Duke—who has heard their conversation enters the cell. He tells Isabella privately of a way by which she can save her brother without compromising herself
. It is by appearing to yield to Angelo, appointing a rendezvous with him, and then sending in her stead one Mariana, who had been engaged in marriage to and then deserted by Angelo.
IV. The Duke takes Isabella to Mariana's house, where the details of the plan are arranged. Angelo, having accomplished his purpose with the supposed Isabella, sends an order to prison for the immediate execution of Claudio. The Duke is in the prison when the order arrives, and finds means to save Claudio by displaying the head of another man who had just died and who resembled him. The Duke then advises his deputy by letter that he will shortly return to the city.
V. The Duke appears at the city gates, clad in his proper costume. He is met by Angelo and other officials. Isabella publicly accuses Angelo of seduction and murder. The Duke feigns anger towards her and places her under arrest. Mariana in turn brings accusation. The Duke retires, leaving the inquiry in his deputy's hands, and shortly returns in his costume of friar in order to act as witness in the testimony of the two women.
Circumstances in the trial force him to resume suddenly his rank as Duke; whereupon he visits merited condemnation upon Angelo, who is sentenced to death, after being married to Mariana for her own protection. The penalty is averted by the entreaties of the wife, seconded by the gentle Isabella. Claudio is released from prison and enjoined to wed with Juliet, while the Duke sues for the hand of Isabella.
MCSPADDEN : Shakespearian Synopses.
The Poet's Purpose in this Play.
The Puritans, who dreamed of leading the Christian Church back to its original purity, and who had returned home after their banishment during the reign of Mary with the ideal of a democratic Church before their eyes, could not possibly approve of a State Church subject to the crown, or of such an institution as Episcopacy. Some of them looked to Scottish Presbyterianism as a worthy model, and desired to see Church government by_laymen, the elders of the congregation, introduced into England, in place of the spiritual aristocracy of the bishops. Others went still farther, denied the necessity of one common form of worship for all, and desired to have the Church broken up into independent congregations, in which any believer might officiate as priest. We have here the germs of the great party division in Cromwell's time into Presbyterians and Independents.
So far as we can see, Shakespeare took no interest whatever in any of these ecclesiastical or religious movements. He came into contact with Puritanism only in its narrow and fanatical hatred of his art, and in its severely intolerant condemnation and punishment of moral, and especially of sexual, frailties. All he saw was its Pharisaic aspect, and its often enough only simulated virtue.
It was his indignation at this hypocritical virtue that led him to write Measure for Measure. He treated the subject as he did, because the interests of the theatre demanded that the woof of comedy should be interwoven with the severe and sombre warp of tragedy. But what a comedy! Dark, tragic, heavy as the poet's mood-a tragi-comedy, in which the unusually broad and realistic comic scenes, with their pictures of the dregs of society, cannot relieve the painfulness of the theme, or disguise the positively criminal nature of the action. One feels throughout, even in the comic episodes, that Shakespeare's burning wrath at the moral hypocrisy of self-righteousness underlies the whole structure like a volcano, which every moment shoots up its flames through the superficial form of comedy and the interludes of obligatory merriment.
And yet it is not really against hypocrisy that his attack is aimed. At this stage of his development he is far too great a psychologist to depict a ready-made, finished hypocrite. No, he shows us how weak even the strictest Pharisee will prove, if only he happens to come across the temptation which really tempts him; and how such a man's desire, if it meets with opposition, reveals in him quite another being—a villain, a brute beast-who allows himself actions worse a hundredfold than those which, in the calm superiority of a spotless conscience, he has hitherto punished in others with the utmost severity.
BRANDES: William Shakespeare.
The humorous scenes would be altogether repulsive were it not that they are needed to present, without disguise or extenuation, the worst of moral ense and corruption out of and above which rise the virginal strength and severity and beauty of Isabella. At the entrance to the dark and dangerous tragic world into which Shakspere was now about to pass stand the figures of Isabella and of Helena-one the embodiment of conscience, the other the embodiment of will. Isabella is the only one of Shakspere's women whose heart and eyes are fixed upon an impersonal ideal, to whom something abstract is more, in the ardor and energy of lier youth, than any human personality. Out of this Vienna, in which
‘Corruption boils and bubbles Till it o'errun the stew," emerges this pure zeal, this rectitude of will, this virgin
sanctity. Isabella's saintliness is not of the passive, timorous, or merely meditative kind. It is an active pursuit of holiness through exercise and discipline. She knows nothing of a Manichæan hatred of the body; the life runs strongly and gladly in her veins; simply her soul is set upon things belonging to the soul, and uses the body for its own purposes. And that the life of the soul
be invigorated, she would bring every unruly thought into captivity,“ having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience.”
Isabella does not return to the sisterhood of Saint Clare. Putting aside from her the dress of religion, and the strict conventual rule, she accepts her place as Duchess of Vienna. In this there is no dropping-away, through love of pleasure or through supineness, from her ideal; it is entirely meet and right. She has learned that in the world may be found a discipline more strict, more awful, than the discipline of the convent; she has learned that the world has need of her. Her life is still a consecrated life; the vital energy of her heart can exert and augment itself through glad and faithful wifehood, and through noble station, more fully than in seclusion. To preside over this polluted and feculent Vienna is the office and charge of Isabella, " a thing ensky'd and sainted.”
DOWDEN : Shakspere.
Angelo is not so properly a hypocrite as a self-deceiver. For it is very considerable that he wishes to be, and sincerely thinks that he is what he affects and appears to be; as is plain from his consternation at the wickedness which opportunity awakens into conscious action within him. For a most searching and pregnant exposition of this type of character the reader may be referred to Bishop Butler's Sermon before the House of Lords on the 30th