In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Vienna is undergoing a wave of Puritanism. Isabella begs the ruler Angelo to spare the life of her brother, who is sentenced to death for premarital sex. Angelo finds his unyielding morality giving way under her charms, and offers to do so if she will have sex with him. She rejects him, horrified. In his twisted mind, he is offering a fair deal; if he is to yield his moral integrity for her benefit, she should for his. Eventually Angelo, an interim duke, is called to account for his crimes when the old Duke returns; Isabella pleads for mercy for him, too.
Isaac Asimov, in his Guide to Shakespeare, treats the play as dealing with the theme of “justice versus mercy,” and treats mercy as obviously superior and justice as barbaric. “We all favor mercy for those with whom we sympathize, but are not as keen when mercy is sought for those we hate. In this play Shakespeare carries through the notion of mercy to ultimate consistency, and in offering mercy to the villain makes critics unhappy….[I]s it only for those with whom we sympathize that mercy is to be sought? If that is so, then what credit is there in mercy?…It is precisely to those whom we hate that we must show mercy if the word is to have meaning at all.”
About Isabella’s entreating Angelo Asimov writes “Claudio’s moment of execution is approaching, and now his sister, Isabella, comes to plead for his life. Yet she is as strictyly virtuous as Angelo and has no great sympathy for her brother’s sexual offense. She says (very Angelo-like): There is a vice that most I do abhor/And most desire should meet the blow of justice,”
So on one hand, Asimov holds that mercy is all about being lenient with those with whom you do not sympathize, but here he seems to reject the idea that you can abhor someone’s actions and still show mercy. Isabella basically embraces the idea of condemning the sin and loving the sinner. To quote her more fully:
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not….
I have a brother is condemn’d to die:
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
In rejecting this distinction, it is Asimov who becomes like Angelo (“Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?”)
Of Isabella’s refusal to yield to the Duke, Asimov writes: “It is now Isabella’s turn to be unbendingly virtuous. She refuses the price even if that means her brother must die, doing so without hesitation, and marches off to inform her brother of that fact.”
But actually, Isabella is badly torn, and it is Asimov who is being unsympathetic to her human predicament in light of his strict moral code. She goes to her brother hoping he will tell her what she wants to hear, which is that she must not yield to the Duke, that he might die in such a way as to leave them both at peace. In comparing Isabella’s “unbending virtue” with that of Angelo’s, Asimov inadvertently endorses Angelo’s twisted reasoning.
Admit no other way to save his life,–
As I subscribe not that, nor any other,
But in the loss of question,–that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person,
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-building law; and that there were
No earthly mean to save him, but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer;
What would you do?
As much for my poor brother as myself:
That is, were I under the terms of death,
The impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death, as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield
My body up to shame.
Then must your brother die.
And ‘twere the cheaper way:
Better it were a brother died at once,
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die for ever.
Were not you then as cruel as the sentence
That you have slander’d so?
But this is obviously wrong. As Isabella retorts,
Ignomy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses: lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption.
Claudio initially tells his sister what she wants to hear, that he would not sacrifice her to save his life, but then contemplates the terror of death and afterlife, and asks her to reconsider. She turns on him brutally.
Asimov writes “We might expect from Isabella the mercy she had requested so movingly of Angelo. She might not give in to Claudio, but she might at least sympathize with his fear of death and forgive him his human weakness. She does not. As rigid and extreme as Angelo…Isabella shrieks out at her brother…” But she has come to her brother for comfort and support, and has been disappointed. We might sympathize with her weakness, which comes in a moment of passion, not out of “rigid and extreme” Puritanism.
Shakespeare has the good Duke keep from Isabella the fact that he has saved the life of her brother Claudio. “Some critics are appalled at the Duke’s needless cruelty in hiding from Isabella the fact that her brother has been saved. The Duke’s action seems reasonable to me, however. He was present when Isabella cruelly turned on her death-fearing brother and excoriated him, saying she would pray for his death. That might teach her a little something about justice and mercy…” But obviously this is a form of rigid, cruel justice.
The Duke’s own explanation makes no mention of such a reason; he tells the audience he will tell Isabella that Claudio has been killed so that she will be that much more overjoyed when she learns the truth (But I will keep her ignorant of her good,/To make her heavenly comforts of despair,/When it is least expected.) This unpersuasive explanation is really just an excuse for the Duke, and Shakespeare, to create an absurd and dramatic situation.
I don’t think the theme is “mercy versus justice,” or an argument that justice generally ought to yield to mercy. The characters argue that people are strongly prone to temptation to premarital sex, and human law must make allowances for human weakness; and the play argues that the pretense of being above such weakness is likely to be hypocrisy. It’s a question, in part, of what human justice should demand.
Isabella’s request for mercy for Angelo, a powerful moment, follows an internal struggle and comes because Angelo’s fiancé (whom he had cast aside long ago and who had, naturally, disguised herself as Isabella and gone to have sex with Angelo to trap him into marriage in a plot hatched by the good-guy Duke disguised as a priest) urges her to do so. The circumstances are crucial.