Be absolute for death: either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.

– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure 3.1.5-6

When I encountered the above line in college via the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I quickly realized I’d found a favorite monologue. That’s a great line when delivered to an audience sitting in the dark. Even if you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s less-performed Measure for Measure, you may be familiar with one of its more famous quotes:

          Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win,
By fearing to attempt.

– 1.4.77-79

Out of curiosity, I did a search of Measure for Measure on lds.org, and sure enough the above quote has been invoked by Mormon speakers, from apostles to BYU Education Week speakers. Yet neither of the above quotes truly sums up Measure for Measure. This is a play set in a society where being found guilty of premarital sex can get you executed.

Last week I reread Measure for Measure and then attended a regional production in Michigan. The director had this to say in her program notes:

[The protagonist] learns that the Old Testament concept of “an eye for an eye” must be tempered with New Testament mercy.

– Janice L. Blixt, Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Unlike many Shakespeare plays, Measure for Measure charts a gray course between the absolute worlds of tragedy and comedy. Known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, it is not a masterpiece. This is due in large part to antiquated gender dynamics and messy subplots. Nevertheless, for your enjoyment and consideration, here are some of my favorite lines from the show:

‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall.

– Shakespeare, Measure for Measure 2.1.17-18

Angelo, the play’s villain, delivers the above line early in the show. This being Shakespeare, it’s no spoiler to say he falls. The next quote is from Angelo’s second in command, Escalus, who halfheartedly goes along with his hard-line boss.

Mercy is not itself, that oft looks so;
Pardon is still the nurse of second woe.

– 2.1.283-284

One of the great characters of Measure for Measure is Isabella. She begins the play on the eve of becoming a nun. Over the course of the plot, she risks virtue and life to save a convicted brother on death row.

…I am at war ‘twixt will and will not.

– 2.2.32-33

How many of us have found ourselves saying something similar in the face of moral dilemmas? Squaring off against letter-of-the-law patriarchy, Isabella says this:

          O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

– 2.2.107-109

Measure for Measure includes a scene which today reads unmistakably as a #MeToo scenario. Domineering Angelo taunts Isabella, who has become the unwilling object of his lust:

Say what you can: my false o’erweighs your true.

– 2.4.170

Plotting to make things right, the protagonist Duke Vincentio delivers a riveting soliloquy comprised of couplets. He notes the deceptive nature of appearances.

O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!

– 3.2.271-272

Though not the snappiest line, perhaps the best quote to sum up Measure for Measure comes from a minor but pivotal character, Mariana:

They say best men are moulded out of faults,
And for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad…

– 5.1.439-441

Which of the above quotes stands out to you? Why?

What other Shakespearean examples of justice and mercy come to your mind? Why?


Notes:

For all Shakespeare quotes, the citation format is act.scene.lines. Prioritizing readability, I have not been strict in my rendering of line breaks.

For additional images from Michigan Shakespeare Festival, I suggest visiting its Facebook page.

For any fellow Shakespeare nerds, I took quotes from The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition.