Musing Upon the Imperfect Justice of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure

16 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2010 Last revised: 9 Nov 2010

Date Written: June 26, 2010


Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure can be read as an inquiry into the themes of government and judgement. How do we make people obey the law? By exercising freedom or restraint? Should justice be administered with mercy or with equity? Who is the honest judge? The one who considers every situation impartially or the one who punishes in accordance with the circumstances of the case? Shakespeare shows how all the drama’s principal characters – Duke Vincentio, Angelo and Isabella – deal with such issues by delegating the role of decision-making to a third entity represented by the Deputy, the Rule and the Word, respectively. If, on the one hand, the act of attributing the burden of their personal responsibility to someone else irremediably compromises their proclaimed perfection, on the other, it triggers a process of self/other knowledge which will gradually lead them to recognize and accept the paradoxical nature of human law as well as their flaws.

What I will point out through the analysis of the final trial scene is the Bard’s belief that human justice will always live the irresolvable tension between the respect for general principles and the sensitivity towards the individual’s unique narrative. Vincentio’s unexpected and disappointing verdict is far from being a gratuitous act of forgiveness. It is an attempt to confront the “war ’twixt will and will not” (2.2.33) which is every judge’s and every man’s major challenge.

Keywords: Justice, Mercy, Equity, Conflict, Shakespeare, Ambiguity, Law

Suggested Citation

Linciano, Roberta, Musing Upon the Imperfect Justice of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (June 26, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Roberta Linciano (Contact Author)

University of Salento ( email )

via Taranto 35
Lecce, 73100


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