I had not read this play since college, and it bothered me back then. But reading it now, in light of the whole #MeToo movement, it was even more infuriating.
This play is a “comedy,” not because it is funny, but because it ends with marriage (as opposed to a tragedy, which ends in death). It is definitely considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Merchant of Venice. It is a play that explores questions of justice, law, punishment, and mercy. But what is most problematic for me is the depiction of how women are sexually exploited by men in positions of power and authority.
Basically, what happens in the play is that the Duke of Vienna places all authority to enforce laws upon his Deputy, Angelo. Angelo is strict and supposedly steadfast, and the Duke claims he wants to test Angelo’s resolve. Angelo begins enforcing a long-ignored law sentencing people to death for having sex out of wedlock. His first example is Claudio, who has a virgin sister named Isabella. Isabella goes before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, and Angelo basically tells her he will only spare her brother if she agrees to have sex with him.
And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.
(Act II, scene iv)
I won’t spoil the details of how everything plays itself out, but suffice to say that Isabella manages to save her brother and her virginity, with the aid of the disguised Duke. But that sets us up for what, in my opinion, is the most offensive part of this play—the very end.
Long story short, the Duke pardons people, measures out justice that seems to be tempered with mercy, and thereby reinstates order out of the chaos. But it is the Duke’s “pardoning” of Claudio that is the major issue.
If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
He is my brother too: but fitter time for that.
(Act V, scene i)
Basically, the Duke is doing the same thing Angelo was doing, pardoning Claudio on the condition that Isabella giver herself to him. And while, yes, the implication here is that the Duke intends to marry her, it’s still not OK. He is still using his authority to get what he wants, taking advantage of a young woman, and even worse, not applying the scales of justice evenly to himself as to others (namely Angelo).
I don’t claim to know Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this play. Maybe he was making a critique against the patriarchal hierarchy, or maybe he was claiming it is OK to take advantage of a woman as long as you are “responsible” and marry her. But the fact is, in the 21st century, this attitude towards women is offensive, to say the least.
In spite of the gender issues in this play, it is still worth reading for the exploration of law, justice, punishment, and mercy. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the play. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.