Themes of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Revealed in Angelo’s Soliloquies
Angelo’s soliloquies (2.2.161-186; 2.4.1-30) express themes of the tragicomic form, grace and nature, development of self-knowledge, justice and mercy, and creation and death as aspects of Angelo’s character.
By the theme of the tragicomic form I mean that which “qualified extremes and promoted a balanced condition of mind […] It employed a ‘mixed’ style, ‘mixed’ action, and ‘mixed’ characters—‘passing from side to side, it works amongst contraries, sweetly tempering their composition’.” (Guarini’s Compendio della Poesia Tragicomica (1601) cited in Lever lxi-lxii). I take Measure for Measure’s tragicomic form as its major theme, or perhaps meta-theme, because it reinforces the value of the via media, of moderation over zealotry. Angelo swings from one extreme to the other before, by the play’s conclusion, prompted by the orchestrations of the duke, he adopts a middle way. In Angelo’s first two soliloquies we see him transition from believing himself immune to earthly love (2.3.185-186) to believing he is ruled by his blood (2.4.15).
This transition suggests a theme of development of self-knowledge. In the first soliloquy Angelo refers to himself as a saint (2.2.179) and speaks of physical love in a condemning tone (2.2.173). In the second soliloquy Angelo has adjusted his self-image (2.4.16) to be consistent with his experience, and he describes his experience of love without spending equal time condemning it. He realizes he took sinful pride in his severity (2.4.9-10), and now compares that quality with an idle plume in a cap—an aspect of appearance, not being. Development of self-knowledge does not show up clearly in other characters however.
The theme of grace and nature1 (Lever lxxii), or perhaps I should say virtue, does. Angelo initially epitomizes a strict restraint of both grace and nature, or virtuelessness. He says as much in his first soliloquy—he rots rather than blooms under virtuous influence (2.2.164-167). The crux of Angelo’s soliloquy is “Most dangerous / Is that temptation that doth goad us on / To sin in loving virtue” (2.2.180-182). This equivocation signifies Angelo’s transition from condemning to embracing his love. Unused to thinking of love (of a novice) as anything other than foul, Angelo acts accordingly. Later he laments forgetting his grace (4.4.31).
There are also shades of the theme of justice and mercy (Lever lxiii) in Angelo’s soliloquies. To this point Angelo has maintained a precisionist, inhuman (merciless) approach to law enforcement. To this point two characters have asked...