The Reading Room

Measure for Measure: Duke Vincentio as Impartial Spectator

A trusted legal system with recognized property rights is one of, if not the, most critical precondition for national wealth accumulation, causing musings over private and public interests to quickly seep from economic into legal thought. Adam Smith’s approach to equilibrating public and private interests is instructive and, I suggest, emphatically Shakespearean.
The Smithian approach to justice focuses not on “‘what would be perfectly just institutions?’” but on ‘how would justice be advanced?’” (Sen xvii). Smith draws a distinction between the impartial spectator, whose judgment stems from fellow-feeling, and the “man of system” who forces all citizens to submit to his will. Unlike the man of system who imagines he can control men “with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board,” the wise ruler “will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people” (TMS VI.ii.2.16-17). Shakespeare brings this binary to life over a century before Smith in Measure for Measure. By pairing Duke Vincentio, the impartial spectator figure, with Angelo, the rigid man of system, Shakespeare reminds us that justice must bend to accommodate human nature or it will break.Angelo epitomizes the man of system who is “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it” (TMS VI.ii.2.17). Having been given the reins temporarily by Duke Vincentio, Angelo immediately sets to work trying to stamp out all vice from Vienna and rehabilitate the law, which the duke has “let slip” (Shakespeare, MM 1.3.21). Striving toward the impossible ideal of heavenly perfection, Angelo proclaims that “All [bawdy] houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” (1.2.88-9). He wastes no time but “insist[s] upon establishing, and upon establishing all at once, and in spite of all opposition,” his own ideal of justice, showing “the highest degree of arrogance” (TMS VI.ii.2.18). He does not consider the public’s “great interests” or “strong prejudices,” but acts out of his own understanding of what society ought to be, without any consideration of what society is.

Though Claudio assumes Angelo is enacting such harsh laws to garner political capital, Angelo’s strict rule seems to stem equally from his ignorance of human nature. Every other character in the play – excepting, perhaps, Isabella – accepts as fact that men’s “natures do pursue, / like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / a thirsty evil” (1.2.120-2). Lucio repeats this sentiment more explicitly in Act 3, explaining to the Duke (now disguised as a friar) “in good sooth, the vice is of a great kindred; / it is well allied; but it is impossible to extirp it quite, / friar, till eating and drinking be put down.” Lucio then reports that the gossip on Vienna’s streets is “Angelo was not made by man and woman,” for his lack of passions makes him “a motion ungenerative” or, in today’s speak, a robot (3.2.97-108). Egged on by the Duke, Lucio continues and condemns Angelo’s killing of Claudio for what even the Duke knows to be a “general” vice. He proceeds to rib the Duke for sharing the same vice, as do all men, claiming “[Vincentio] had some feeling of the sport; he knew the service; and that had instructed him to mercy” (3.2.109-17). Whether or not the Duke is as flawed as some critics believe or as sexually liberal as Lucio implies, he understands that if given the rein, men will run “as headstrong jades,” necessitating the “needful bits and curbs” of statutes and laws (1.3.20).

Yet, as with everything, alas, the key is balance. It is when our passions, Smith explains, are “not restrained by the sense of propriety, when it is unsuitable to the time or to the place, to the age or to the situation of the person” and when in indulging it he neglects his duty “it is justly blamed as excessive” and harmful to society. In other words, “What is chiefly to be found fault with is not so much the strength of the propensity to joy as the weakness of the sense of propriety and duty” (TMS VI.iii.21). To say Angelo’s actions in Measure for Measure are unrestrained or unsuitable to time, place, or station (as he attempts to blackmail the virginal Isabella into sleeping with him to save her brother, Claudio’s, life) would be an understatement. Had Angelo accepted his humanity and indulged his desire in a suitable way, things would have been much different. Instead, by forcing himself into a moral straitjacket – and expecting others to do the same, while striving for that which is “set down so in heaven, but not in earth,” he authors his own downfall (2.4.50).

Angelo’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of human passions – his defect – ensures his inability to perform the defining task of the impartial judge: putting oneself in the other’s position and judging others as an impartial spectator would. As an observer, “We either approve or disapprove of the conduct of another man, according as we feel that, when we bring his case home to ourselves, we either can or cannot entirely sympathize with the sentiments and motives which directed it” (TMS III.i.2). Angelo fails every aspect of this test, multiple times. In a prophetic foreshadowing of the latter half of the play, Escalus – whose name evokes the scales of justice – cautions Angelo against enforcing the law too harshly, too fast. In response to Angelo’s concern that they not “make a scarecrow of the law” Escalus counters “Ay, but yet / Let us be keen, and rather cut a little, / Than fall, and bruise to death . . .” (2.1.4-6). Unfortunately for Angelo, he ignores this nugget of wisdom.

In contrast to Escalus’s measured approach to justice and mercy, the Duke seems to have only recently recognized the importance of balance to effective jurisprudence. During his reign, the Duke has devalued mercy by forgiving vice too freely and must now revive justice. Claudio corroborates this account by confessing that his fate was caused by “too much liberty, my Lucio” (1.2.117). By overindulging in liberty, Claudio has lost his freedom (being on death row) and by allowing Claudio and the other citizens of Vienna this overindulgence, the Duke has lost his authority. Instead of solving the problem directly, the Duke disguises himself and leaves Angelo to restore law in Vienna without damaging his own reputation as benevolent ruler. Vincentio quite literally becomes Adam Smith’s impartial spectator, trading his politician’s robes for a friar’s habit and, with it, his partial position as ruler for the impartial one of confessor – a job based on listening and not adjudicating. Through the Duke, Shakespeare literalizes Smith’s impartial spectator, taking advantage of the disguised ruler convention to present a complex and pragmatic form of jurisprudence that combines Smithian sympathy with Machiavellian deception and calculus. It is his disguise as the impartial Friar Lodowick that allows Vincentio to spectate Angelo’s “change [of] purpose” and ultimately redeem Isabel, pardon Claudio, and revive Vienna’s law, all while maintaining his image as benevolent prince – more loved than feared, perhaps, but ultimately respected (1.3.54). 
SOURCES: Sen, Amaryta. “Introduction.” The Theory of Moral Sentiments. By Adam Smith. New York, NY: Penguin, 2010. vii-xxvi.
Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. Ed. J. W. Lever. London and New York: Arden Shakespeare, 1987.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by David Daiches Raphael and Alexander Lyon Macfie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1982.