Forgiveness and Mercy in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare is an intense and passionate play that deals with the issues of forgiveness and mercy, the way in which people judge each other, and the way in which they feel they should be judged. The characters within this play all seem to understand and even desire forgiveness, which in their Renaissance society would have been extremely important to them because of their Christian beliefs; however, when the characters’ words are analyzed, do they truly feel that they desire and even deserve forgiveness? Within the character of Isabel the reader is able to truly delve into this issue and try to understand what forgiveness really means in Measure for Measure and what Shakespeare was trying to say with his work.

The main theme of Measure for Measure is clearly stated in its title alone and by the end of the play it is clear that the title represents the fact that in order for one thing to be atoned, another thing must be given in full measure. For example, the old eye for an eye idea that we must judge according to one’s sins and only give forgiveness as befits their sin. At the end of the play, when the Duke has re-established his place on the throne, he speaks to Angelo when he is condemning him, saying, “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death./ Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure” (V, i, 414-16). Yet, even at the end Angelo is forgiven by the Duke and the moral center of the play is that of Christian forgiveness, which makes its most profound impact on the audience.

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The character of Isabel is not as easily viewed in the play as someone requiring forgiveness. At first glance, she is one-dimensional to some eyes because she is incredibly pious, almost a caricature of what we would expect a young, innocent convent girl to be during the Renaissance. She becomes, however, the very avenue by which the play moves its theme along. Isabel represents ideals and beliefs that cannot be changed, and more importantly, is the one person that asks to pardon Angelo, despite the fact he had tried to kill her brother Claudio. Isabel shows her unfaltering righteousness throughout the play but most importantly in the one moment where she refuses to give up her chastity to Angelo in order save her brother. To her, giving up her life is far better than giving up her virginity, because she has put a greater worth on her morals than on her life. “‘As much for my poor brother as myself/ And strip myself to death, as to a bed/ The impression of keen whips I’ld wear as rubies/ That longing have been sick for, er I’ld/ My body up to shame’”(II, iv, 98-105). In this speech to Angelo, Isabel is saying that she would rather strip down to nothing and let him whip her, or even give her life for that of her brother’s. Her ability to separate her faithfulness to her religion from her faithfulness to her brother is amazing, given the circumstances.

Despite the nobility and strength which Isabel shows during her interaction with Angelo, the man who holds the life of her beloved brother in his hands, she falters slightly when she has to face her brother. The old Duke would never have condemned Claudio to such a fate as death for his sin; Angelo did so without a second thought. This is just another example of how Shakespeare is showing the theme of forgiveness given and forgiveness received. When Isabel visits Claudio she is shocked to see that her brother would rather see her shame herself by giving in to Angelo’s passions in order to save him from death. “Sweet sister, Let me live/ What sin you do to save a brother’s life/ Nature dispenses with the deed so far/ That it becomes a virtue” (III, i, 134-137). Claudio’s view of sin and judgment is clear in his desperation to save his own life. Isabel believes that she does not desire nor deserve that type of forgiveness, and this becomes clear in her response to her brother: “O you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!/ Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?/ Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life/ From thy own sister’s shame?/  (III, I, 135-138).

The problem with Isabel seems to lie in the fact that she is not doing things strictly out of the need to do good, but simply her desire to not do something wrong. In being righteous, Isabel ends up letting herself ignore what is truly important, which is her connection to her brother and the life of someone. To the reader, Isabel’s speeches come across as strong and resolved but truthfully, she is simply frightened to make her own decisions. Isabel’s one fault is that she needs the consent of someone else in order to do absolutely anything and that is why she has sought the safety of a convent. Isabel is not so poor she needs to join a convent to have a roof over her head and food on the table, and is beautiful enough that she could find a husband. Early in the play Isabel makes the comment to one of the nuns at her convent that shows us what her motive for being in a convent really is: “Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more; But rather wishing a more strict restraint/ Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare” (I, v, 3). What is being said between the lines, both to her brother and to the superior at her convent, is that her piety is a result of her fear of making a decision. She hides behind the convent walls because she is not willing to take credit for her own decisions.

The conversations between Isabel and the Duke, who is in disguise as a man of God, show her one weakness more than anything else: her inability to go against the Church’s wishes. As long as the Duke, posing as the voice of the Church, tells her to do something she is willing and able to do so. Isabel requires boundaries to dictate her life. “Let me hear you speak farther/ I have spirit to do anything that appears not foul in the truth of my spirit (III, ii, 212-214). The one need that Isabel demands is that of knowing exactly what is good and what is wrong, because somehow she is not able to determine the difference on her own, without the presence of boundaries and restrictions from an outside source.

As the play winds to an end, it becomes evident that the moral that Shakespeare was trying to put across to his audience rests most especially in the character of Isabel. She represents, to the untrained eye at the beginning of the play, the one that is righteous and the one that exemplifies what is good, but by the end it is apparent that Isabel represents everything wrong with the Church and the people who adhered to its strict policies. Isabel is judgmental, plain and simple, and unable to see her own sin, but more than able to see the sin of others with clarity and without any sort of mercy or compassion. She feels that since her brother is at risk of losing his head because of the sin of fornication, he deserves whatever he gets. She sees the sin of Angelo as being nothing short as pure evil. She lets another, namely Mariana, go to Angelo’s bed and give up her chastity but refuses to do so herself. To protect her own physical purity, she gives up her spiritual purity. The Duke recognizes this in her and at the end strives to make a point to her about her own view of forgiveness. At the end of the play Isabel begs the Duke for forgiveness for her own sins, “ O, give me pardon,/ That I, your vassal have employ’d and pain’d/ Your Unknown sovereignty! (V, i, 391-393)”. Yet she seems unable to receive this mercy because of her shame over not saving her brother. She was the cowardly one.

The play comes full circle as the one character that represented a twisted sense of forgiveness becomes the character that learns how to forgive. Isabel begs the Duke to forgive Angelo his sins, knowing that she too has sinned and recognizing that in herself. At the end, the true strength that she acquires by learning to forgive others as the Duke forgives and brings her to a place where she is able to give up her need for the walls of the convent to protect her. She is also able to accept the Duke as her husband. She has found true righteousness and piety by finding mercy and compassion within herself, and recognizing her own need for forgiveness.

The idea of forgiveness and sin is dealt with beautifully in this play. Shakespeare uses the emotions and ideals of all of the characters to make a point about the way that mercy contributes to humankind’s success, or lack of it. One of the most beautiful quotes from the play comes from a character with a very small part, Juliet, who is carrying the illegitimate child of Claudio. Juliet says, “I do repent me, as it is an evil/ And take the shame with the joy” (II, ii, 34-35). Juliet understands the full truth of sin: everyone sins and yet they need to take on the consequences of that sin and sometimes experience the joy of it as well. She sees the child she carries as a joy, the love she felt for Claudio as a joy. She realizes the sin and understands that she must take the consequences of it upon herself but in her mind, she is not entirely regretful of it. She is not remorseful because of her condition.

Measure for Measure is a complex play that gives the reader a true lesson in morality and the main themes of forgiveness and mercy. In Isabel, we see the full circle of what can happen when one does not accept, as Juliet did, the joy with the shame. She is not truly happy or truly good until she can accept the mercy that is given to her. If no one sins, no one is capable of forgiving others’ sins, and therefore she is not truly righteous until she sins and learns the ability of compassion. This is the true theme of Shakespeare’s work and the beauty of its message.