Justice and Mercy In the World of Shakespeare

Justice and Mercy In the World of Shakespeare
Life isn’t fair. How often have we, in our despairing states and unfortunate circumstances cried out against the injustice of our predicaments? When a young child dies of a bone cancer, or a volcano destroys an entire village, we shake our heads and despair at the injustice of the situation.

If we see a woman on the road get hit by a car, and in the same instant, see the car speed away—at once we anger at the unfairness dealt by the driver and sorrow at the unfairness dealt to the woman. Unfortunately, we can do little about the cancer and even less about the volcano, but our sense of what is fair allows us not only to make a judgment about the driver of the car, but to take action and attempt to make the situation just through application of punishment or retribution according to the wrong committed. However, sometimes what is just or what is deserved is not always meted out; sometimes the one who delivers the retribution shows mercy, and the appropriate and just punishment is avoided. In the play Measure for Measure, Shakespeare illustrates the superiority of mercy by showing that although both Claudio and Angelo deserve to die under the law, allowing them to live and become better men is a greater virtue than ending their life.

In the play, Angelo represents absolute justice. As the administrator and executor of the laws in Vienna, he seeks to establish a virtuous society by enforcing the laws that had remained idle under the duke. The first example offender is Claudio, who has committed fornication. In Angelo’s eyes, to be just is to enact the law. Thus, Claudio is sentenced to death for his crime. However, Angelo soon hypocritically breaks the same law he was so adamant on enforcing by proposing to go to bed with Isabella and actually doing so (although the woman he slept with was actually Marianna). Under the law, Claudio deserves what he gets; it is the law and his punishment is just. But Angelo also deserves to receive the same punishment as Claudio—he has broken the same law. It must be understood here that to deserve something, e.g. to deserve a pardon, is identical to saying it is only just and fair to receive the pardon. When we say someone deserves something, we are really saying that it is only right and it fulfills justice that they receive that thing.

Thus, Angelo certainly deserves to die. He has committed fornication and gone against the law. Yet he does not die and neither does Claudio. Why is justice not fulfilled in these cases? The just law is not executed because the two are shown mercy. However, the fact that Angelo was spared an execution does not seem fair. Well, it isn’t fair. It isn’t just. The waiver of execution was based on nothing else but mercy. Mercy is a separate entity and has nothing to do with what is just or fair or even rational. In fact, since the reception of mercy comes only when a deserved punishment is not meted out, it is simply the giving or receiving of a punishment less than what is deserved, or no punishment at all; a merciful sentence is thus an unjust sentence.

The duke in the play begins with a reputation for mercy; it is because of his permissiveness that the city of Vienna has become so corrupt. However, toward the end, in Act V, he becomes bent on enacting a just punishment for Angelo—he paraphrases a passage from the New Testament, found in Matthew 7: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. / For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2). In the New Testament, Christ is concluding His Sermon on the Mount, and He is warning that they who seek to give judgments when they themselves are not free from sin are destined to have the same judgments passed on them. This principle is further clarified in verse 3, which states, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). The duke here is simply bringing about the fulfillment of the “return judgment” prophecy on Angelo—certainly Angelo judged Claudio unrighteously; the same sin was in his own heart. In the end, it is only Isabella that saves the life of Angelo. Even though she still at this point believes that her brother is dead, she still pleads for the duke to spare Angelo. Isabella understands here the importance of mercy—if mercy had been shown to her brother, Claudio would still be alive. So, she kneels and tells the duke, “Let him not die. My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died” (101). In other words, Claudio had only justice on his side, and not mercy. Comprehending now the value of showing mercy, Isabella pleads vehemently for it to be shown to Angelo. The duke’s captivation with Isabella and her plea in the end causes him to show mercy and to waive the execution of Angelo.

To deliver a message in a play, a playwright will end the final act in the situation most desirable to the audience, or else illustrate the conclusion as very unfavorable in order to convince his audience of the undesirability of the predicament. In this play, Shakespeare does the former—he ends the play on this final note of mercy. It is a comedic, or happy, ending; not only the protagonist but also the antagonist is saved and all ends well. Certainly, justice and mercy have a precarious relationship—the line between where to show mercy and when to enact justice is ambiguous at best. It cannot be concluded that Shakespeare does not believe in ever meting out justice; to do so would be to abandon all order and stability. And, he does not really demonstrate what are the best situations for showing mercy and what are those for delivering justice; because mercy is not rational and based on what someone does not deserve, it is impossible to make any clear distinction. However, by showing the final result of merciful actions, Shakespeare demonstrates his strong belief in forgiveness and sympathy for wrongdoers, especially when an executor of the law is not completely innocent himself. Certainly it is important to strive to for fairness and justice, but not every situation requires measure for measure.

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