TCS: ‘I knew him tyrannous’ – Will Shakespeare on TYRANNY – Part Three

Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum, so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.



So last week, we left Isabella of Measure for Measure feeling that she might have moved Angelo to be merciful to her brother, little knowing the direction in which she moved him, while the ‘upright’ Angelo is so overcome with lust that he’ll sink to sexual extortion to get Isabella into his bed.

You may remember that this state of affairs started when Duke Vincentio went away, leaving Angelo and his co-deputy in charge. Well, the Duke didn’t really leave — he’s disguised himself as a friar and is lurking about to see how things will go when he’s absent. Hearing that Claudio is sentenced to death, he goes to the prison.

When Isabella comes back to see Angelo, she doesn’t understand what he wants at first, but when he finally makes it plain that he’ll pardon her brother if she will “lay down the treasures of your body,” she is horrified, believing that this would damn her soul for eternity.


. . . Better it were a brother died at once
Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.


Were not you then as cruel as the sentence
That you have slandered so?


Ignomy in ransom and free pardon
Are of two houses. Lawful mercy
Is nothing kin to foul redemption.


You seemed of late to make the law a tyrant,
And rather proved the sliding of your brother
A merriment than a vice.


O, pardon me, my lord. It oft falls out,
To have what we would have, we speak not what we
mean. I something do excuse the thing I hate
For his advantage that I dearly love.

Measure for Measure, Act II, scene iv

Isabella and Angelo – artist uncredited

When Angelo tries to say he loves her, she scorns his hypocrisy and threatens to expose his attempt to force himself upon her, unless he releases her brother immediately.


Plainly conceive I love you.


My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for ’t.

He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.


I know your virtue hath a license in ’t
Which seems a little fouler than it is
To pluck on others.


Believe me, on mine honor,
My words express my purpose.


Ha! Little honor to be much believed,
And most pernicious purpose. Seeming, seeming!
I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for ’t.
Sign me a present pardon for my brother
Or with an outstretched throat I’ll tell the world aloud
What man thou art.


Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, th’ austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein.
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes
That banish what they sue for. Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,
Or by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true..

Measure for Measure,  Act II, scene iv

Now the plot gets really complicated. Isabella goes straight to the prison, full of righteous anger, to tell her brother what’s happened. Claudio at first says of course she mustn’t give in to Angelo’s demands, but as the prospect of death inches closer, he pleads with her to save him.


The weariest and most loathèd worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.


Alas, alas!


Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.


O, you beast!
O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch,
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?                 painting by William Hunt
Is ’t not a kind of incest to take life
From thine own sister’s shame?

Measure for Measure, Act III, scene i

Isabella would gladly martyr herself by dying in her brother’s place, but will never save him by going to Angelo’s bed.

Of course, the Duke-as-friar has been eavesdropping on all this, and comes up with a plan. Angelo had jilted a lady named Mariana when her brother’s ship was wrecked and he couldn’t pay her dowry. Poor Mariana still loves the Angelo — a serious flaw in her character, but convenient for the story. The Duke counsels Isabella to tell Angelo she will meet him that night, but it will be a heavily veiled Marianna who goes instead. Angelo gives Isabella the keys to his garden. Marianna, who still considers herself to be betrothed to Angelo, agrees to the plot.

The Duke goes back to Claudio to await the pardon that Angelo promised to send, but instead Angelo sends word to the warden to behead Claudio at once, then send the head to him as proof that the sentence is carried out.  After some scrambling, they send the head of a notorious pirate instead. Then the Duke sends Angelo the news that he is “returning” to Vienna. He fears Isabella will never be able to dissemble well enough to play her part in
Angelo’s comeuppance, so he lies to her, saying her brother has been executed.

The Duke re-enters the city as himself, trumpets announcing his return. Angelo and his co-deputy meet him at the city gate, just as Isabella comes to present the Duke with a petition, and she tells the sordid tale, omitting the substitution of Marianna, denouncing Angelo and asking for justice.


. . . the vile conclusion
I now begin with grief and shame to utter.
He would not, but by gift of my chaste body
To his concupiscible intemperate lust,
Release my brother; and after much debatement,
My sisterly remorse confutes mine honor,
And I did yield to him. But the next morn betimes,
His purpose surfeiting, he sends a warrant
For my poor brother’s head.

. . .

Measure for Measure, Act IV, scene vi

The duke pretends not to believe her, and Angelo is smirking, but Marianna, removing her veil, comes forward to tell her part of the story. Angelo says it must be an evil plot by some nameless enemy who employed the women to impugn his honor. The Duke has the women “arrested” for slander, leaves, and comes back in his friar disguise to confirm the women’s story. Angelo orders his arrest.

When the Duke removes his disguise, Angelo asks only that he be killed quickly, without a long public trial. The Duke says he must marry Marianna before he is beheaded — “an Angelo for Claudio, death for death.” Marianna pleads for his life, and even Isabella, who still thinks Claudio is dead, puts in a word for mercy, but Angelo, ashamed at last, won’t ask for mercy, “’Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it.”

However, since Claudio has not been executed, the Duke pardons Angelo in order that he can marry Marianna. Then Duke Vincentio turns to Isabella, and asks her rather offhandedly to marry him:


. . . Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline,
What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.—
So, bring us to our palace, where we’ll show
What’s yet behind that’s meet you all should know.

Measure for Measure, Act V, scene i

Exeunt the company.

As is so often the case, the women get the worst of the bargain: Marianna, the disgraced and untrustworthy Angelo as her husband; and Isabella, marriage to a much older man when what she wants is a life of devotion and martyrdom in the cloister.


I will close with this thought. Shakespeare’s most memorable villains and tyrants are superior to most the of the world’s real-life evil-doers in one way: they are honest with themselves, and the audience, about their villainy. Of course, they do present false smiles to the characters around them. So perhaps our modern-day tyrants “may smile, and smile, and be a villain” but relate with pride all their misdeeds to the reflection in their mirrors.

As Edmund in King Lear puts it:


This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are
sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make
guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father
compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my
nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and
lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the
maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my

 — King Lear, Act I, scene ii

Today is the last of this April’s celebration of William Shakespeare, but there’s still lots to talk about next year! Thanks for stopping by.

All the world’s a stage…


About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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