A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Discipline, Measure for Measure


The Duke in Measure for Measure is wise, indeed wise enough to understand his own failings. As he confesses to Friar Thomas, he has always been a little withdrawn, preferring cloistered study to the company of others, and has delegated much of his authority to the rigidly upright Lord Deputy Angelo:

"My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed,
And held idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth, and cost, and witless bravery keeps,
I have delivered to Lord Angelo, -
A man of stricture and firm abstinence, -
My absolute power and place here in Vienna…"

If you want a job done right, give it to someone else. The Duke at least knows that his city of Vienna has a problem:

"We have strict statutes and most biting laws, -
The needful bits and curbs for headstrong steeds, -
Which for these fourteen years we have let sleep,
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey…"

Shakespeare has chosen for his setting Vienna, a cold place in central Europe, far from his often preferred Italy. What's going on in central Europe? The Protestant Reformation, of course, ignited by the fervor of Calvin and Luther, which has reached England in a diluted, acceptably English form of Anglicanism through Henry VIII, the father of Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare has his eye on the undiluted form. The play deals with religious extremism, expressed here in over-strict law. Laws designed to curb headstrong human steeds, even if under the Duke they were ignored, and with predictable results:

"…Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat'ning twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mocked than feared: so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum."

Something like Ft. Lauderdale on spring break, with the shopkeepers pleading with the cops not to crack down. But the Duke has decided to bring a new sheriff into town, Angelo. But Friar Thomas objects (sith means since):

Fri: "…It rested in your grace
To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleased:
And it in you more dreadful would have seem'd
Than in Lord Angelo."

Duke: "I do fear, too dreadful:
Sith 'twas my fault to give the people scope,
'Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do."

Once your children (or students) get the run of the place, reining them in is no easy thing. That's why the Duke, like many parents and not a few teachers, looks to outside help in enforcing his rules. But you can't lay the problem off on a few doses of Ritalin or a visit to the principal, Child Services or the police. In Judaism (digression!), a parent is considered to delegate his child's religious education to the rabbi. Rabbis will teach as they please of course, but it is still considered the parent's responsibility to oversee his child's education and, as occasionally happens if the parent has a serious objection, switch rabbis (usually requiring a switch in synagogues as well).

The Duke has similar Jewish instincts. Because the Duke knows final authority must rest with him and cannot be relinquished, he is in fact not going to Poland at all. He's planning to stick around and watch Angelo. While he admires Angelo, he suspects him of seeking more to retain his own virtue than to foster virtue among others. That's the real reason he's talking to the friar:

"Supply me with the habit, and instruct me
How I may formally in person bear me
Like a true friar."

In a leader, even virtue, goodness, is not enough, if it is not accompanied by the desire to move others in the same direction. There needs no ghost or blogger come from the grave to tell you this of course, but Shakespeare is particularly memorable in the way he says it, in an earlier speech that the Duke addresses directly to Child Services – I mean to Angelo. Here Shakespeare assesses the true nature of coercive authority, dedicated to virtue but separated from humanity (so proper as to waste means so completely as to justify your wasting):

"…Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do.
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not."

That seems to be why parents parent and why bloggers blog.

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