'The Golden Metwand': The Measure of Justice in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

Posted: 29 Jan 2009

See all articles by John V. Orth

John V. Orth

University of North Carolina School of Law


Measure for Measure, one of Shakespeare's problem plays, is a dark comedy depicting Duke Vincentio's effort to restore respect for the law after a period of lax enforcement. Peopled with a wide variety of law-enforcers and law-breakers, the play implicates numerous legal issues and has consequently attracted the attention of lawyers and judges. In the eighteenth century Sir William Blackstone contributed notes on the play, while in the twentieth century judges have quoted from it in their judicial opinions. Like all good legal dramas, Measure for Measure ends with a trial scene, but - as we would expect from Shakespeare - one with an unusual twist. When charges of corruption are brought against Angelo, the deputy appointed to enforce the law, the Duke orders an immediate trial: Come, cousin Angelo / In this I'll be impartial; be you judge / Of your own cause. When the deputy's guilt is disclosed, the Duke commands that he suffer the punishment he intended for others - measure for measure, putting the Bible-conscious play-goer in mind of the passage: Judge not, that ye be not judged. / For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you againe. By ordering Angelo to be the judge of his own cause, the Duke is inviting the deputy to measure out his own punishment. And Shakespeare is forcing us all to confront the difficulty of doing earthly justice.

Keywords: shakespeare, measure for measure, law and literature, judges

Suggested Citation

Orth, John V., 'The Golden Metwand': The Measure of Justice in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Adelaide Law Review, Forthcoming, UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1334263, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1334263

John V. Orth (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

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Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
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