Measure for Measure, justice, mercy, Anabaptist, Shakespeare
As the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to carry a biblical title, Measure for Measure draws on an explicitly Christian body of thought about law, mercy, justice, and the right exercise of authority. The pervasive influence of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) over Measure for Measure’s action has led many critics to interpret the play as a straightforward Christian allegory where Mercy pleads before God in a grand Last Judgment.1 Another group, perhaps in reaction, has found in the play a subversion of the expected outcomes of justice, or even a radical subversion of all authority.2 During the Reformation, the Sermon on the Mount was also the subject of controversy. Radical reformers such as the Anabaptists concluded that the exhortation “judge not” obliged Christians to withdraw from the exercise of civil authority, including the magistracy. More moderate reformers, such as Martin Luther, tried to reconcile the public demands for order and justice with the Christian law of love, but did so only by dividing the public and the private into strictly separate realms. Against this background, Shakespeare lays out the action of Measure for Measure, in which a strictly moral Christian is placed in the office of magistrate and fails spectacularly in both roles. The clash of the public role and the private person in the proper exercise of justice clearly echoes contemporary debate over the meaning of the “judge not” passage.
Magedanz, Stacy, "Public Justice and Private Mercy in Measure for Measure" (2004). Library Faculty Publications. 11.