What the Duke Has Done

Just who is Duke Vincentio and what are his real motives? With these vital questions in hand, Ms. Ang’s lecture rummaged through the rampant “plotting, manipulation and duplicity” in Measure for Measure. Do these means justify the ends — that of exposing Angelo, restoring social order and purging Venice’s moral/sexual corruption?

This question assumes that the Duke “conforms to the traditional figure of the wise ruler” who always exercises “his wise and kindly concern for others” (Miles).  In other words, he must be the “convincingly remote” authority figure  whose actions are ultimately “benevolent” and morally righteous, even if his methods arouse our suspicion at times. This is the Duke that predominates Act 5.

This post, taking inspiration from an unlikely source, rethinks the above assumption. What if the Duke is not a corrector of vices? What if he is instead “profoundly disingenuous” (Miles), “very odd” in his execution of intentions (Adelman) and finally, self-important to disconcerting extremes? Lest the audience forgets, the Duke spends a protracted sequence in disguise and never clarifies his shifting position on Angelo. The play arguably presents to us three distinct Dukes with different intentions:

  • The Duke in Act 1 (“D1“) who avows his love for the people but not their vehement attentions. He proceeds to temporarily cede control to Angelo, his deputy;
  • The Duke disguised as the Friar (“D/F“) in Acts 2 -4, and the early section of Act 5, lurking in the shadows to manipulate; and
  • The Duke who resurfaces triumphantly in public during Act 5 (“D5“), pronouncing and quickly renouncing punishment upon Angelo and Lucio, and making amends to Claudio, Isabella and Mariana.

Even if the contexts vary in setting and character, Miles reminds us that disguise is typically used to “echo or expand the disguiser’s original role”. In the case of Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio, the disguise is conspicuous. The audience is always aware who and where the Duke is. They expect consistency of intention from the Duke, whether cloaked in Acts 2 -4 or unmasked in Act 5. The lack of justification for this role-playing inclines the audience towards a less kind interpretation, since Shakespeare “offers little explanation” and “somewhat inadequate motive” for his disguise. Thus we return, however briefly, to his pronouncements in the early part of Act 1.

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The Duke of Act 1

By his own admission, the Duke’s departure is both hasty and mysterious. The tone of his explanation to Angelo is commanding (“No more evasion… therefore take your honours”) as befits his stature and quick to reassure (“leaven’d and prepared”), while depending on the circular logic of his authority — his leave “prefers itself”.

D1 We have with a leaven’d and prepared choice
Proceeded to you; therefore take your honours.
Our haste from hence is of so quick condition
That it prefers itself and leaves unquestion’d
Matters of needful value. (1.1, p7)

The brevity of Act 1 Scene 1 and the abdication of power therein is an indication of how opaque the Duke’s intentions will be throughout Measure. It is only in Act 1 Scene 3 that the audience acquires a firmer sense of his motives, albeit these too are riddled with contradictions and ambiguities.

D1 Therefore indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo imposed the office;
Who may, in the ambush of my name, strike home, […]
More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you […]
hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.3, p23)

The Duke at once wishes for Angelo to “strike home” in his absence — that is to punish for the moral good of Vienna — and to “see” if the power granted to Angelo will expose him as a “seemer” who is less precise (i.e. bound by “blood”) than he appears. As if the audience were not already confused, the Duke makes a pledge to Friar Thomas that there are “more reasons” to be rendered later, a promise that is not altogether fulfilled.

The “ends” of the Duke’s scheme is more clouded than clarified by his explanations. His “means” too, executed under the mask of a friar’s habit in Acts 2-4, does not fully conform to these expectations either.

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The Duke/Friar of Acts 2-4

At first glance, D/F conveys the weight of his role in an appropriately religious register (‘repent’, ‘sin’, ‘conscience’) that is also often poetic in imagery and patterns (‘A breath thou art’, ‘Thou art not…’). To Juliet and Claudio respectively, he offers moral teaching and consolation, guiding them in commanding declaratives (‘I’ll teach…”) and imperative sentences (“Be absolute… Reason thus”) towards repentance / acceptance. The cloth is the character, in spite of the audience knowing the true identity of its wearer.

D/F  Repent you, fair one, of the sin you carry?
JULIET  I do; and bear the shame most patiently.
D/F  I’ll teach you how you shall arraign your conscience,
And try your penitence, if it be sound,
Or hollowly put on. (2.3, p75)
D/F Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep… (3.1, p99)


The disguise opens to D/F a full view of the social and moral degeneration taking place in Vienna, studying Claudio, Juliet, Lucio and the Provost at a more intimate proximity than D1. D/F’s authority is indeed of a different, arguably more persuasive quality: his disguise allows him to convince the pious and desperate Isabella, as well as the jilted Mariana that the bed-trick is somehow justifiable. The language of D/F’s suit is ethically questionable in its distortion of ethical virtue, paying particular attention to the italicised verbs and nouns:

D/F  I do make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wronged
lady a merited benefit; redeem your brother from the angry law; do no stain to your own gracious person; and much please the absent duke, if peradventure he shall ever return to have hearing of this business. […]
Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful. […]
It is a rupture that you may easily heal: and the
cure of it not only saves your brother, but keeps
you from dishonour in doing it. (3.1, p111-113)

At this point in the play, contradictions between the D1’s intentions and D/F’s actions begin to emerge. Why does D/F convince Claudio to accept the death sentence if he (i) initially expects Angelo to pardon Claudio, (ii) intervenes by arranging with a “head-swap” first with Barnadine’s, then with Ragozine’s head on the Provost’s suggestion, and (iii) finally pardons Claudio in 5.1 for the sake of Isabella’s hand in marriage? If he does indeed want to purge his city of sexual corruption, why does D/F adopt a permissive, merciful attitude toward Juliet and Claudio? Why does he pursue the morally nebulous “bed-trick” later? Why does D/F only show sympathy and mercy… when it is in his favour?


The precise lines of contradiction can be rather tedious to trace, especially if one were to give D/F the benefit of enacting two roles, but we might look towards a simpler answer that critics like Robert N. Watson and Rosalind Miles have put forward: the Duke’s various intentions, whether cleansing Vienna, humanising Angelo, recompensing Mariana, Juliet and Claudio or leading Isabella on to the “final reveal” (see next section), are all geared towards his own self-importance. He is the would-be saviour who pardons sinners, rescues the people from the “tyrannical” Angelo and attempts to win the hand of the maiden Isabella.

Signs of this conceitedness are evident in the comic exchange between D/F and Lucio. Watson notes that “his nagging resentment of Lucio’s casual slanders suggests that he cares very much about” what the Viennese people think about him, and so is “vainly determined to convince Lucio what a splendid man the Duke actually is”. In the excerpt from 3.2 below, D/F dismissively chides Lucio for speaking “unskilfully” and for “folly, or mistaking” and pins his slanders to a sense of “envy” and “malice”. Fighting for his own reputation, Lucio’s negative reviews are overwritten slowly, first by an objective call to evaluate “the very stream of [the Duke’s] life and the business he hath helmed” and second a more forward appraisal of himself as “a scholar, a statesman and a soldier”.

LUCIO  A very superficial, ignorant, unweighing fellow.
D/F  Either this is the envy in you, folly, or mistaking:
the very stream of his life and the business he hath
helmed must upon a warranted need give him a better
proclamation. Let him be but testimonied in his own
bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the
envious a scholar, a statesman and a soldier.
Therefore you speak unskilfully: or if your
knowledge be more it is much darkened in your malice. (3.2, p125)

If the Trumpian self-praise is not yet overt, D/F “promptly begins fishing shamelessly for compliments from Escalus” (Watson):

D/F  I am a brother
Of gracious order, late come from the See
In special business from his holiness. […]
I pray you, sir, of what disposition was the duke?
ESCALUS  One that, above all other strifes, contended
especially to know himself […]
(The Duke is) a gentleman of all temperance (3.2, p129)

The praise would seem faint unless analysed in relation to Angelo, who is far from moderate (vis-a-vis the Duke’s “temperance), gentlemanly or self-aware (“know himself”). In effect, Escalus’s words restore the Duke as the rightful ruler of Vienna – he of genuine “ample grace and honour”, “mortality and mercy” (1.1). D/F’s castigation of Angelo for his “twice treble shame”, growing “vice” and unholy “self-offences” in a soliloquy at the end of Act 3 Scene 2 performs a similar function and neatly summarises both “means” and “ends”: the Duke will apply “craft against vice” to expose “what… man within [Angelo] hide” (3.2, p131).

And shame Angelo he will, in the grand finale of his own play-within-a-play.

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The Return of the Duke

The setting of this performance is “A public place near the city gate” (p185), a contrast to the mostly closed spaces demarcated by the stage directions. The openness of the text is animated by multiple characters, including the “Duke in his own habit, Varrius, Lords and Attendants; Angelo, Escalus, Lucio and citizens“, entering the stage at once. D5 does not retreat from the avid attention D1 does not relish.

I would argue that Act 5 is structured as a series of “reveals” that serve only to add to the Duke’s importance. As he introduces new characters such as Mariana and Claudio and pronounces right from wrong, the plot thickens:

  • p185-193:  Isabella makes an impassioned case against Angelo, which the Duke roundly chooses to dismiss. He calls for her to be imprisoned instead of enquiring about Angelo’s conduct. We sense that Mariana is the trump card that only the Duke can play against Angelo.
  • p197-201:  Mariana arrives on the scene to explain her history with Angelo and the bed-trick; Angelo denies the charges and seeks permission to investigate them.
  • p195, p203-209:  Lucio accuses Friar Lodowick (D/F) of defaming the Duke; the Duke goes off-stage to reappear as D/F, fending off further allegations against him. Lucio unveils D/F as D5, which is part of the Duke’s grand plan.
  • p209-215:  Angelo confesses. The Duke proceeds to pardon Isabella, and in turn requests for her to forgive Angelo. Angelo is then pardoned on the condition that he weds Mariana.
  • p217-219:  the Duke orders for Barnadine; the prisoner brought on stage is revealed as Claudio. Lucio on the other hand is to be sent to prison for slander. The act ends with the Duke’s proposal to Isabella.

For most of Act 5, D5 commands the characters in imperative (“Give me your hand”) and declarative sentences (“Thou shalt…”). They respond in mostly subservient tones (“Gentle my liege”, “Faith, my lord…”). Accordingly, the Duke pardons or makes amends to them, to further complicate — not restore — the social and moral order. The “strict statutes” D1 alludes to are not enforced. Justice is left “unloosed”.  Angelo is condemned yet forgiven.

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Order in Vienna is restored, largely to its original state the Duke had left it: the tyrannical rule of Angelo curtailed, Claudio set free, with only Isabella’s fate hanging in the balance. The mercy shown to most characters leaves the audience with doubts about moral regeneration in the city. Have Angelo and Lucio shown penitence? Has restitution been made to Mariana? Has fornication outside of wedlock been punished, with Claudio made an example? The “ends” in and of themselves are not clear enough for a judgement on the “means” to be made.

One consequence is clear: the Duke’s hold on power is stronger than it was before his departure. To achieve this, the Duke resolves problems that he himself brought upon Vienna, having handed the reins to the corrupt Angelo while knowing his history with Mariana and doubting his “purpose”. The Duke was and is the source of Vienna’s moral troubles. On account of his egocentricity and malpractice, it is difficult to consider the Duke’s “means” moral. That the play ends on a self-serving proposal to Isabella compounds our own judgement of his morality.

But the Duke has chosen not to be “severe” in his wielding of “the sword of heaven” (3.2) at the very end. While we scurry through the shapeshifting accounts by the “multiple” Dukes we encounter in the play’s five acts, we might find that it is easier, and indeed more virtuous, for us to “forgive”, “restore” (5.1, p221) and seek to “mend” (3.2, p117), even if that includes the ruler of the land in every form. No character, as we note once more, is free from sin, nor is any character undeserving of mercy.


P.S. The Saul Bass-inspired GIF is rather relevant in addressing pretence, self-victimisation, and the thin justification behind swift violence.

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