“Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the every act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?… ‘He who is without sin among you let him cast the first stone.'” (John 8:3-5, 7). It has been record in biblical days that a person could be stoned to death for various reasons. Although this form of capital punishment is not mentioned in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the reader finds that he has been invited to witness an execution. Claudio, the flawed hero, is in jail awaiting punishment for the deflowering of his fiancée, Juliet. Neither adultery nor fornication is new to Vienna, but appearance of morality must be kept. Measure for Measure uses the theme of reality vs. appearance to illustrate that things are not always as they appear.
Angelo, whose name means “angel”, seems to be above reproach. In the opening act of the play, the Duke and Escalus discuss Angelo’s character and his ability to rule Vienna in the absence of the Duke:
If any in Vienna be of wroth
To undergo such ample grace and honour,
It is Lord Angelo (I,i,22-24)
Angelo would appear to be a great ruler and a man of virtue, he has several character flaws. He is merciless and lustful.
A good ruler possesses mercy. Despite his good intentions and adherence to the law, he has no compassion. Angelo has Claudio, who has had consensual sex with his fiancée, arrested and sentenced to death. Ironically, Angelo plots to commit the same crime with Claudio’s sister, Isabella.
Women have presented a temptation to men for centuries. King David, a man after God’s own heart, was tempted by Bathsheba. Samson was also gives in to the siren call of the deceitful Delilah. Angelo, contrary to his own beliefs and principles, proves that he too is weak when it comes to desire.
What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Ha! Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violent in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary?
And pitch our evils there? (II, ii, 161-171).
Angelo is shocked at this strong desire of his for Isabella. He admits that his lust is wrong, but he does not ignore it. He does not chasten himself. Instead of remembering his high principles and values, he attempts to use his position and power to manipulate Isabella into having sex with him. By using her brother as bait, he tries to lure her to his bed.
…that there were
No earthly means to save him, but that either
You must lay down your body (II, iv).
So, Angelo proves that despite his appearance of virtue and character, he is himself no better than Claudio.
Even after recognizing his own lust, Angelo does not bend. He does not consider offering mercy to Claudio. He continues to gather stones for Claudio’s execution. Angelo, the supposed just man, intends to punish Claudio for having consensual sex with Juliet while at the same time trying to seduce Isabella.
Things are often not as they appear. Angelo is Measure for Measure appears to be a good ruler with high moral standards. In reality, he is just as easily lured by temptation.