William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 3


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— 1.3 —

In a room in a Viennese monastery, Duke Vincentio and Friar Thomas talked.

“No, holy father; throw away that thought. Don’t believe that the dribbling dart of love — a weakly shot arrow from Cupid — can pierce a bosom completely protected by armor,” Duke Vincentio said.

Friar Thomas had been afraid that Duke Vincentio had come to the monastery to arrange to consummate a love affair there.

Duke Vincentio continued, “Why I want you to allow me to hide myself in a friar’s habit has a purpose more grave and wrinkled and serious than the aims and ends of sexually burning youth.”

“May your grace tell me that purpose?” Friar Thomas asked.

“My holy sir, none better knows than you how I have ever loved the life withdrawn from the world. I have always lightly valued haunting social gatherings where young people show off their witless and expensive clothing.

“I have given to Lord Angelo, who is a man of strict self-discipline and firm abstinence, my absolute power and position here in Vienna; he will rule Vienna until I take over again. Lord Angelo believes that I have travelled to Poland; that is a rumor that I have caused to be spread to the public, and that rumor is believed.

“Now, pious sir, do you want me to tell you why I have done this?”

“Gladly, my lord,” Friar Thomas said.

“In Vienna, we have strict statutes and very biting laws. These statutes and laws are the needed bits and curbs to headstrong weeds, aka people who do not contribute to society. For fourteen years we have not enforced these statutes and laws. They are like an old lion in a cave that has convinced other lions to bring food to it. These statutes and laws and the old lion no longer bite their legitimate prey.

“Now, like foolish fathers who bound together twigs of birch to make a whip, but who merely threaten their misbehaving children with it instead of actually whipping them, with the result that the misbehaving children laugh at rather than fear the whip, so our decrees might as well not exist because they are never employed. Now, liberty grabs justice by the nose, the baby beats the nanny, and good behavior is rejected in favor of bad behavior.”

“Your grace, you have always had the power to begin enforcing the laws whenever you pleased,” Friar Thomas said. “Your enforcement of the laws would be more feared than Lord Angelo’s enforcement because you are the Duke, not the Duke’s subordinate.”

“I fear that I would be too feared,” Duke Vincentio said. “It is my fault that the people ceased to fear the never-enforced laws. I gave the people the freedom to ignore the laws, and I would be tyrannous if I were to suddenly and strictly enforce the laws. When we do not enforce the laws and administer punishment for breaking them, we tacitly give our approval to the general public to break those laws.

“Therefore, indeed, my father, I have on Angelo imposed the duty of enforcing the laws. Angelo may use the authority that I have lent to him to strike to the heart of the matter and enforce the laws, all without reducing my popularity with the citizens of Vienna.

“I wish to witness what Angelo does, and to do that I need a disguise. If I am disguised as a brother of your order, I can visit both Angelo and the people of Vienna; therefore, I ask you to give me the habit of a friar and to instruct me in how I may bear myself so that I act like a friar.

“More reasons for this action I will give to you when I have more time, but I will tell you now one more reason. Lord Angelo is straitlaced and puritanical, he keeps up his guard against the doing of evil, and he scarcely confesses that his blood flows or that his appetite leans more to bread than stone. He is so puritanical that it is as if he will not admit that he has human impulses. I want to see what happens to him as a result of his having my power. Will power change him? Is Angelo really what he now seems to be?”

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