Measure for Measure, then and now

F. de Sales Meyers

November 06, 1991|By F. de Sales Meyers

THE DUKE of Vienna, a kind and gentle head of state, was sorrowful that the law prohibiting unchaste behavior was being broken. The duke pretended to be journeying to Poland and appointed in his place of governance his deputy, Angelo, a sainted person of a strict and rigid life, one "whose blood is very snow-broth, one who never feels the wanton stings and motions of the sense."

There was at that time in Vienna a law against the seduction of young women, and there was brought before Angelo one Claudio, who was adjudged by Angelo to be guilty of having "got his friend with child." Angelo, therefore, to make an example of Claudio, sentenced him to be beheaded, despite Claudio's reputation as a gentleman of worthiness.

Claudio, in prison, by means of a friend persuaded his sister, Isabella, then a novitiate in a convent, to intercede with Angelo because, Claudio said, "there is a speechless dialect in sorrow such as moves men." He hoped she would thus would win his pardon.

Isabella, after some doubt, agreed to go to Angelo. She threw herself on her knees before Angelo and pleaded for her brother's life. Angelo coldly rejected her initial entreaties and insisted that Claudio would die in the morning.

"Gentle my lord, turn back. Hark, how I will bribe you," Isabella said to the astonished Angelo, his not understanding that by her meaning she intended that all her prayers to heaven she would offer up for him.

Angelo, then, in the presence of this beautiful young maiden, caught the word bribe, and there was awakened in him an unsaintly passion. He bade her to return once more in the morning, and she was grateful for so brief a respite of her $H brother's life.

The following day, when Isabella again appeared to plead mercy for her brother, Angelo said to her that to save Claudio, she "must lay down the treasure of your body, or else to let him suffer," and that she should consent to "visit me by stealth at night."

Isabella was shocked that he would tempt her to allow the same fault for which he had condemned her brother. She replied, "Were I under sentence of death, the impression of keen whips I would wear as rubies, and go to my death as to a bed that longing I had been sick for, ere I would yield myself up to this shame."

Angelo persisted, however, and Isabella over and over condemned his "pernicious purpose" and told Angelo that "with outstretched throat I'll tell the world aloud what man thou art."

"Who will believe you?" Angelo said. "My unsoiled name, the austerity of my life, my word vouched against yours, will outweigh your accusation. Redeem your brother by yielding to my will, or he shall die tomorrow. As for you, say what you can, my false will overweigh your true story!"

Isabella despaired. "To whom should I complain?" she cried. "Did I tell this, who would believe me? O pious mouths, that have in them one and the self-same tongue, either of condemnation or reproof, bidding the law make curtsy to their wills."

In the meantime, the duke, in disguise as a friar, had returned to Vienna to know himself of Angelo's behavior in office and learned from Isabella of the infamous conduct shown by Angelo.

"Oh," Isabella said to the duke, not knowing him in his friar's habit, "how much is the good duke deceived in Angelo! If ever he return, and I can speak to him, I will discover his government."

Eventually, throwing off his friar's disguise, the duke in open confrontation with Angelo and Isabella heard her pleas. She told the duke how she had prayed and knelt to Angelo, only to be repelled, and the vile conclusion was that Angelo would not but by her yielding to his dishonorable love release her brother.

Angelo vehemently denied the accusation by Isabella and responded that grief over her brother's death had "disarranged her senses." When Isabella was supported in her complaint by another woman secretly brought in by the disguised duke to solve the matter, Angelo declared these "poor women are but the instruments of some greater one who sets them on," all in contradiction to the reputation he had always maintained.

The wise duke, despite Angelo's loud protestation of innocence, accepted the proof and truth of Isabella's story and then, measure for measure, the matter was concluded. Claudio was saved, Angelo repented of his deceit and the duke married Isabella.

* Now, dear reader of this later era, it has been observed by some that the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings on the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and especially those regarding the Anita Hill disclosure, had been appropriate to a melodrama by Charles Dickens. Others have noted this event to have been a tragedy, and Clarence Thomas himself referred to his ordeal as Kafkaesque.

Is it not a surprise and revelation of his genius, though, that the story as related above was composed by William Shakespeare as "Measure for Measure" and presented first on Dec. 26, 1604?

And finally, could Anita Hill have known of the drama and gone on with her own disclosure, expecting, no doubt, that a wise, kind and gentle duke would surely come forward to protect and redeem her?

F. de Sales Meyers is a retired Maryland state worker living in Reisterstown.

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