To Have a Giant’s Strength

Macbeth. Claudius. The Duke of Gloucester. Antony. Don John. Duke Frederick. Antonio. It is difficult to come by one of Shakespeare’s plays without encountering a character avid for more power. Whether such characters be the main protagonists or the cause of the plays’ obstacles and troubles (often, Shakespeare has made sure that they are both); whether they obtain the influence, control, and prestige that they long for or not; and whether the plays in which these characters evolve end in death or marriage, they all share the inexhaustible “vaulting ambition” (I.7.28) of which Macbeth speaks in the first act of the eponymous play.

It is therefore quite unusual that Measure for Measure, written in 1604, opens on a character renouncing his position and relinquishing his power. Duke Vincentio, who rules over Vienna, announces that he is leaving the country. What is unusual here is not that a vacant seat of power provides the context for the play—this context, well-known to Elizabethan audiences whose history is convoluted with temporarily empty thrones, was the kernel of many Shakespearean dramas—but that this vacancy is not a result of sudden death or disputes concerning succession. The Duke very willingly hands over his duties, and with them his authority, to another man. The audience is led to think that his absence will call for a redistribution of power, and as Shakespeare introduces different characters, we observe the many forms that power can take. However, despite the influence that these characters have over one another, and despite the reasons for abdication that the Duke provides before he leaves, this paper will argue that his retirement from the dukedom is counterfeit. It is in fact a way for him to reclaim and reassert his power. Ultimately, as shown in the last act, the Duke still has the most influence, and he dominates over the ending of the play, perhaps even more so than he did at the play’s start.

Though we, much like his dukedom, are surprised to hear that the Duke is leaving for Poland and readily handing his position over, he gives some clear explanations as to why he has taken this decision, and we are therefore prone to believing him. The first of these reasons is one that he shares with Lord Escalus and Angelo as the three of them talk about his departure. Here, the Duke suggests that he can no longer endure the constant scrutiny under which rulers have to lead their lives and their people. The position requires that he always be in the public eye, and he therefore chooses to surrender it: “I love the people,/ but do not like to stage me for their eyes.” (I.1.67-8) He reiterates this when he later tells the Friar that he has “ever lov’d the life removed.” (I.3.8) During this same conversation, we are given another explanation: The Duke thinks he has become too lax for Vienna. He acknowledges that he has not been applying the law, and that his leniency is partly responsible for the crimes and debauchery that have spread in the city:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum. (I.3.19-31)

The Duke recognizes that by responding to “evil deeds” with “permissive pass” instead of “punishment” (I.3.38), he only encourages these deeds. This is why he has “delivered to Lord Angelo,/A man of stricture and abstinence,/ [his] absolute power and place here in Vienna.”  (I.3.11)

Both reasons provide a logical, rational, and well-intentioned explanation, which allows Escalus, Angelo, and the Friar, as well as the audience, to understand and respect why the Duke no longer wants his title. This would make all the more sense to an audience of the time. Indeed, this play was written a year after the beginning of King James I’s reign. Though Shakespeare sets his play far from England, and in a Catholic dukedom, not a kingdom, Shakespeare’s audience would recognize in Duke Vincentio some of James I’s traits. Both despised public appearances, and both were concerned with redefining law and justice in their countries. As writes Jonathan Crewe in his introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play, “Certainly, the duke’s understanding and exercise of power remain very close to those of James I’s wishes for absolute monarchy. Although the duke begins the play by brushing aside the ‘properties’ (I.1.3) of government, those properties are precisely what the play will investigate” (Crewe, 2000). Shakespeare seems to be telling us that this play will not be discussing the complexities of governance, and by taking our attention away from it, does exactly this.

Given this opening act, we come to accept that Duke Vincentio will no longer be holding the political power in Vienna, nor be the dominant figure in the play. Instead, we turn to Lord Angelo, who despite initial uncertainty, quickly follows the Duke’s advice and beings to “enforce or qualify the laws/As to [his] soul seems good.” (I. 1. 65-66) Though Angelo has been chosen for his profound knowledge of the law, and the rationality with which he will be able to enforce it, he is blinded by his newly obtained power and begins to abuse of it. Isabella warns him of this almost as soon as she has met him, providing us with one of the most important lines of the play: “Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous/ To use if like a giant.” (II. 2.107-8) However, Angelo, undoubtedly confident in his new position, will in fact continue to use his power like a giant. As British historian Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” At the very beginning of the play, the Duke seems to be aware that giving Angelo complete power and authority might transform him, making him more prone to abusing that power: “Hence we shall see/ If power change purpose, what our seemers be.” (I.3.53-4) Sure enough, when Isabella asks him to save her brother, and he falls for her, he tells her that the life of her brother will not be spared unless she breaks her vow of chastity and sleeps with him. He uses his position, not only to obtain what he wants, but to remind her that she cannot speak about it, because, with her word against his, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (II.4.153) In these moments, the play’s power structure is built with Angelo as its center. He is the only one who can decide if Claudio lives or dies, and it becomes clear that he is leveraging power in order to have absolute control.

But does he have absolute control? It is important, when looking at this play, to remember that power is not only defined by a position of political authority, but also by the influence one has on others. In this way, Isabella possesses an incredible amount of power: She is her brother’s last chance to survive, and she has more influence on Angelo than she had wished for. “Assay the power you have” (I.4.76), Lucio tells her as he encourages her to go to Angelo and plead for her brother’s life. What is the nature of that power? One that resides in both her femininity and eloquence. Lucio, in suggesting this, convinces her: “When maidens sue/ men give like Gods; but when they weep and kneel,/ All their petitions are as freely theirs/ as they themselves would owe them” (I. 4. 80-83). And, as we later observe, Isabella does have power over Angelo: He does not execute her brother immediately, as he had planned to, and he finds himself questioning many of his principles after meeting her, only to abandon them completely in order to have her. Unfortunately, because of Angelo’s position as the male authority in the dukedom, Isabella’s power only extends so far.  Her power only depends on that of Angelo’s, and her influence on him is limited. Still, that influence is noteworthy. Several other characters, such as Escalus and the Friar, exert control over people’s lives. Elbow’s life depends on Escalus’ decision, for example. Though he, and others are more minor characters, we see that both Escalus and the Friar are forces that help to shape the play and advance its plot. Using the word “forces” would also invite us to consider the concepts of Law and Religion, crucial elements of this play, as powerful factors which influence the characters’ decisions and actions. This essay, however, chooses to focus on the power of individual characters.

We see that the notion of power is far from being an easy or clear one in Measure for Measure. The main executive power is passed on to other characters before the curtain has fully risen; the definition of what power really is and how it should be asserted is debated within the play; and the main protagonists in positions of power are themselves controlled by other people or systems.The more the play advances, the more complex this becomes. Perhaps the duke therefore does genuinely chose to take some distance from it. Yet, in the midst of this hierarchical chaos, and though we have been invited to think otherwise, can we really say that the duke is not longer dominating the events in Vienna?

We, for one, know that the Duke is not physically gone. In fact, he makes it very clear that it was never his intention to leave for Poland. Right after explaining that he does not think he is fit to rule, he tells the Friar that he “will, as t’were a brother of your order,/ visit both prince and people” (I.3.44). So does he really accept that he will no longer be ruling over Vienna? Has he truly relinquished his control of the city to Angelo? Is he simply escaping what he dislikes about being a duke—the attention—but attempting to guide the city? Or, was this all a plan to return to Vienna and prove that he is more fit to govern than any of his possible replacements?

Yet again, Shakespeare has not made it easy for us to find the right answer. By pretending to be a friar himself, Duke Vincentio is able to witness all sides of the dukedom, to address and advise people through direct conversations, between equals, in a way that he could not as Duke. This is how is able to approach Isabella and convince her to fool Angelo. One could see this as a way for him to avoid the surveillance he had as duke, while still being able to guide people. This seems to be on his mind when he says that leaders must “light” the people with their virtues: “Heaven doth with us as we with torches do” (I.1.33).

But perhaps, he is only ‘becoming’ a friar (which in fact was not possible, and makes him an usurper) because in doing so, he continues to exercise his power. In fact, since he is no longer a Duke, he no longer even has to represent the law, and can allow himself to manipulate events and people, testing them, twisting the narrative. He plots to have Isabella accept Angelo’s demand, and to have Marianna, another woman in the play, go to him, disguised as Isabella. In this way, Isabella remains chaste, Angelo thinks he has obtained what he wants, and has mercy on her brother Claudio. Were it only for this, the Duke might be seen as purely well-intentioned. But, later, he makes Isabella believe that Claudio has indeed been killed. It is difficult to imagine how this, aside from making him feel in power, could benefit Isabella. It is also he who is in control of the denouement, again, manipulating the other characters: He reveals the truth bit by bit, instead of exposing it all at once, as is done in many final acts of of Shakespeare’s plays. He pretends that he is unaware of Angelo’s conduct, and waits before announcing that Claudio is alive. Lastly, he proposes to Isabella. This proposal—which comes as a surprise, especially given the prior events, ends the play and so does not receive a response, but we are left wondering why the Duke would ask her to marry him. Is this manipulation not other abuse of power? Does he think that because he has saved her and his brother, she will, of course, accept? All of this is in the context of the Duke’s reappearance in front of his people– who in his absence were troubled, and suddenly are provided with answers, some of which he in fact has been holding on to– and he has the last word. Suddenly, Duke Vincentio is the savior.

His power often mirrors that of the great monarch who confuses his authority with divine power. We said earlier that Angelo is the one who chooses whether Claudio lives or dies. But when Angelo does decide to have him killed, the Duke intervenes and has another killed in his place! This other man is an unknown pirate Ragozine, a character to whom we are not emotionally attached  ( he is nonetheless given a name, reminding us that he is an individual). Still, we wonder, in becoming a friar, does Vincentio not play God?

Ultimately, the Duke does make the play’s ending a happy one, when it could have very well turned into a tragedy. It is hard to argue that this would have been the case had he really left Angelo to govern on his own. So is his method of asserting his power, deceitful as it may be, necessarily a bad thing? For Louise Schleiner, it is not. In her 1982 article “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure,” she reminds us that we need to put the Duke’s actions in historical context:

Critics have read his testing urge as heartless scientific curiosity, a view that does not accord with his constant concern for his subjects’ well-being. Some have found him a deeply mysterious figure, but his character appears at least conceptually consistent once we recognize this moral test as its mainspring. Commitment to searching out and supporting the right and the good is his leading trait, as the gossip’s flippancy is Lucio’s, and lofty idealism Isabella’s. We can partly explain the aversion of many modern audiences to his bed trick and other manipulations by considering that we no longer accept moral correction from civic authorities or even from clergy, only from psychiatrists . . . But if we are to see him as Shakespeare saw him, we must accept the verdict of the other characters in the play, who consistently refer to him as ‘the good Duke,’ ‘a gentleman of all temperance.’ (234)

Schleiner allows us to see the Duke in the time that Shakespeare created him and how early seventeenth-century audiences would understand him. Duke Vincentio’s tactics are also reminiscent of those articulated by Niccolo Machiavelli in 1515. In The Prince, Machiavelli attempts to define how a strong leader should act and rule over his people, and save Italy, his country, from repeated invasions. According to him, “The best fortress which a prince can possess is the affection of his people.” Perhaps more importantly, “it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” (Wooton, 1995) Both of these pertain to Duke Vincentio: he is indeed loved and admired by his people (aside from Lucio, who is the one character with whom Vincentio is extremely severe), and his arguable methods, perhaps a way for him to stay in control, inarguably lead to a good resolution, for both the people and the city of Vienna, whose crimes have been publicly addressed.

In Measure for Measure, Angelo is in the official position to exercise power, as he is “now the voice of the recorded law.” (II. 4. 60) Isabella’s power lies within her words and her vow to celibacy, which means that Angelo cannot have her. Nonetheless, it is clear by the end of play—when each character listens silently as Duke Vincentio scorns or thanks them, and in either case makes it obvious that he has fooled them all—that his is still the driving force in Vienna, and perhaps has been all along. He directs the series of events that will lead to the life or death of others, the events that form the plot of the play. He punishes the people who he thinks must be punished, fixes what he thinks must be fixed, and, by staying close to his people, governs according to his principles, all the while maintaining his idea of order over a population that thinks he has left. Finally, he makes a public display of these principles in the final act, guiding his people by revealing the truth about each character, a truth that he largely helped to shape. Though we are pleased with the positive outcomes of this Machiavellian leader’s influence, but not with the way he exerts his power, and perhaps would not respond to his actions today the way an audience in Shakespeare’s time would, what is certain is that once more, Shakespeare gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we define as power, what we believe is the best way to assert it. Over four hundred years after this play was first performed, it continues to present twenty-first-century audiences with the nuances of such a complex concept, one that affects all of our lives, one that we return to today.

Works Cited

Crewe, John. Introduction to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. New York: Pelican Shakespeare Edition, 2000

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince, translated by N.H. Thomson. Vol. XXXVI, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. New York: Pelican Shakespeare Edition, 2000

Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. New York: Pelican Shakespeare Edition, 2000

Schleiner, Louise. “Providential Improvisation in Measure for Measure.” PMLA, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Mar., 1982), pp. 227-236, Modern Language Association.