Back to Vienna…
When yesterday we left the plot of Measure for Measure: The lovable but weak Claudio was on death row, his fiancee pregnant, his sister Isabela shuttling between the convent and the court to plead for mercy. The Duke of Vienna was masquerading as a Franciscan, and the Duke’s deputy Angelo was poised to apply the death penalty to punish fornication for the first time in decades.
The “Lord Angelo” is thought by some of the Viennese citizens to be a paragon of austere virtue. Others regard him as frighteningly frigid. We overhear the following conversation about him on the street in Vienna:
“They say this Angelo was not made by man and woman after the downright way of creation. Is it true, think you? ”
“How should he be made, then?”
“Some report a sea-maid spawned him; some, that he was begot between two stock-fishes. But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true.”
The vice-grip of the plot of Measure for Measure tightens a bit more:
Isabela returns to Angelo’s court, hoping that she has convinced him to be merciful and spare her condemned brother’s life. We know that the stern Angelo is burning with desire for the beautiful aspiring nun.
Angelo stammeringly proposes to Isabela that she might save Claudio. How? By letting Lord Angelo have his way with her.
Isabela refuses–just as adamantly as Angelo has refused mercy to her brother. She threatens to expose Angelo’s hypocritical villainy, but he convinces her that she will never be believed. She runs off, desperate for someone to sympathize with her.
Meanwhile, the Duke masquerading as a priest has visited Claudio to help prepare him to meet his Maker. Claudio has resolved to make a holy death.
Isabela arrives to visit her brother in his cell. When she sees how courageously Claudio faces death, she divulges Angelo’s evil proposition. Claudio collapses and begs her to give in, so that he might live.
…In my book, this is the high point of the drama of this play. All the play’s themes have been stretched to a point of perfect tension:
Laxity breeds endemic vice. But severity masks hypocrisy. Without moral absolutes, no one can know what to do in the face of the evil in this world. But when the law requires perfection, it becomes a tyrant. Good hearts aspire to be noble and bigger than themselves. But they collapse under the weight of passion–especially fear.
With Claudio blubbering for his life and Isabela livid, all of these themes are hanging in the balance. Then the disguised Duke emerges from his hiding place in Claudio’s cell…