The Duke – Interesting but Kind of a Jerk

As interesting as I think the Duke is as a character in Measure for Measure, I find his actions at the end of the play deplorable. At the start of the play, I was more or less on his side, believing that his actions (that is, disguising as a friar to “test” Angelo) were for the good of the people; he simply wanted to see “if power change purpose” (I.iv.54). However, in Acts IV and V, as his plans for Claudio and Isabel unfold, it seems the feelings of others are just about the last thing on his mind.

In Act III, the Duke (dressed as a friar), orders the Provost to basically sacrifice the unsuspecting Barnardine. I understand that Barnardine’s fate was already decided, but he is basically using this unsuspecting man as simply a tool in his grand scheme instead of leaving his to die in (somewhat) peace.

Here, the Duke uses his “double life” to his advantage as a form of manipulation. First, he uses words such as “vow,” “by the saint whom I profess,” and “plead,” and makes reference to his religious “coat,” that is, uses his alter ego’s religious power in order to persuade the provost. But when that doesn’t work, he writes a letter from himself (the Duke) especially for the provost, discussing his return and ordering that this execution take place. To further persuade, he claims that this information was not even given to Angelo.

The nature of his manipulation of Isabel is slightly more ambiguous to the readers (or at least to me). In IV.iii, the Duke (still disguised as a friar), deliberately lies to Isabel about her brother’s fate: “But I will keep her ignorant of her good, to make her heavenly comforts of despair when it is least expected” (IV.iii.101-103). According to the Duke, he is doing this for her own good; in the end, he will bring her peace of mind. But first of all, the way he delivers the new is, to me, completely malicious! “He hath released him Isabel, from the world. His head is off and sent to Angelo” (IV.iii.107-108). He deliberately builds her up, implying they released Claudio from prison, and then, after a pause, adds, “from the world.” It was almost as if he wanted her to suffer more. Or is this another test, perhaps of Isabella’s faith? And when she breaks down in front of him, instead of comforting her, the Duke flatly tells her “This nor hurts him, nor profits you” (IV.iii.115). This response is much like what a mother would say when her young child has a tantrum; instead of entertaining the outburst, she would simply respond: “this isn’t doing anyone any good.”

But what are his true motives? As I said before, he claims that withholding the information will bring her peace of mind, but why bother waiting? In my opinion, the text suggests that the Duke is doing this for his own benefit. He tells Isabella:

“The Duke comes home tomorrow – nay, dry your eyes –[…]Already he hath carried/Notice to Escalus and Angelo,/Who do prepare to meet him at the gates,/There to give up their power. If you can pace your wisdom/In that good path that I would wish it go,/And you shall have your bosom on this wretch,/Grace of the Duke, revenges to your heart,/And general honour” (119-128). It seems to me that the Duke is withholding the information until he can be the Duke again, so that he can reveal to her, as himself, the good news; he wants to be the hero. Basically, he is saying, “There, there, Isabella, that super-awesome Duke of ours will solve all your problems.” Moreover, he uses this good news as a platform to propose to Isabella? What a gem!

And does anyone else find it ironic that the Duke is dressed as a friar while “playing God” with these people’s lives?


3 thoughts on “The Duke – Interesting but Kind of a Jerk

  1. estaats

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think the Duke was completely selfish in his choice to wait to tell Isabella that he brother was still alive. I feel like he was using the information in his favor, that he wanted to wait to tell her until he proposed so he could look like a hero and his chances of marrying her were greater. I happen to think this couldn't of been more cruel and unruly. I agree with your question of, why wait? What is the point of delaying such important news? The only answer I can come up with is that the Duke is self-serving.

  2. Jennifer Raimondo

    I especially like your last point as the Duke being dressed as a friar. Shakespeare is a writer that pays close attention to detail. And I think the fact that the Duke is specifically dressed as a friar (rather than any other identity) is key in understanding Shakespeare's intentions. In this case, irony.

  3. Cyrus Mulready

    This is a nice reflection on our broader topic of the Duke as an idea ruler. I think you make a good case here, Liz, for the Duke as a kind of Machiavellian dictator–one who manipulates power to his ends and desires. But perhaps this is one version of a good ruler? I can't help but compare the Duke to Richard, who seems to lack all of the Duke's strong decision making power.


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