Measure for Measure deals with the consequences of an imperfect judicial system. Problems arise when Claudio has consensual intercourse with his fiance, Juliet, and is imprisoned and sentenced to execution as a consequence. The law is depicted as random and harsh, possibly because Claudio’s crime was something Shakespeare himself was guilty of with Anne Hathaway. The play centers around the harsh imprisonment of Claudio and the even more depraved actions of Claudio’s judge, Angelo, who offers Claudio freedom only if his sister, Isabella, will sleep with him. Angelo’s hypocrisy is an important theme of Measure for Measure. Can there really be justice in society run by humans? By looking at a comparison to Greek mythology Isabella makes in Act III, it’s clear Shakespeare had little faith in an ideal judicial system, but did have faith in mercy.
The comparison Isabella makes in Measure for Measure is between man and giants. Giants from Greek mythology were a mixture of heaven and earth and were creatures fallen from heaven. Shakespeare was comparing giants to man who are often seen as fallen, but with a portion of the divine. When Isabella first mentions giants she is speaking to Angelo, trying to convince him to have mercy on her brother. She says “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” In other words, the law gives you power, but to exercise it unjustly is to be like the giants: foolish and base. The giants of Greek mythology were beast-like, despite their divine heritage. In one of Isabella’s most powerful speeches she compares man to the apes, angry and rash, while the God’s weep over mankind’s poor choices.
Though the ideal punishments should be proportional to the crime and the criminal, when man is endowed with heavenly power, they are often unable to deal justly. Angelo and to an extent, the Duke, represent this power and the flaws of the ensuing system. Since true justice is an ideal impossible to humanity, mercy makes up the difference. Like when you post your blog super late, but your professor is merciful. If I were to research this topic further, I would study Greek mythology and how it was perceived in Shakespeare’s day in terms of justice and mercy.