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Shakespeare's Characters: Duke of Vienna (Measure for Measure)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 7. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co. (1901), Public Domain

The Duke has been rather hardly dealt with by critics. The Poet than whom it would not be easy to find a better judge of what belongs to wisdom and goodness seems to have meant him for a wise and good man; yet he has represented him as having rather more skill and pleasure in strategical arts and roundabout ways than is altogether compatible with such a character. Some of his alleged reasons for the action he is going about reflect no honour on him; but it is observable that the result does not approve them to have been his real ones: his conduct at the end infers better motives than his speech offered at the beginning; which naturally suggests that there may have been more of purpose than of truth in his statement of them. A liberal, sagacious, and merciful prince, but with more of whim and caprice than suits the dignity of his place, humanity speaks richly from his lips; yet in his action the philosopher and divine is better shown than the statesman; and he seems to take a very questionable delight in moving about as an unseen providence, by secret counsels leading the wicked designs of others to safe and wholesome issues.

Schlegel thinks "he has more pleasure in overhearing his subjects than in governing them in the usual way of princes"; and sets him down as an exception to the old proverb, "A cowl does not make a monk": and perhaps his princely virtues are somewhat obscured by the disguise which so completely transforms him into a monk. Whether he acts upon the wicked principle with which that fraternity is so often reproached, or not, it is pretty certain that some of his means can be justified by nothing but the end: so that if he be not himself wrong in what he does, he has no shield from the charge but the settled custom of the order whose functions he undertakes. Schlegel justly remarks, that "Shakespeare, amidst the rancour of religious parties, delights in painting monks, and always represents their influence as beneficial; there being in his plays none of the black and knavish specimens, which an enthusiasm for Protestantism, rather than poetical inspiration, has put some modem poets upon delineating. He merely gives his monks an inclination to be busy in the affairs of others, after renouncing the world for themselves; though in respect of pious frauds he does not make them very scrupulous." As to the Duke's pardon of Angelo, though Justice seems to cry out against the act, yet in the premises it were still more unjust in him to do otherwise ; the deception he has practised upon Angelo in the substituting of Mariana having plainly bound him to the course he takes.
Hudson: The Works of Shakespeare.


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