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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

And Liberty Plucks Justice by the Nose


(Bardseyeview is blogging Measure 4 Measure, a Shakespeare play with striking parallels to our own times).

The plot thickens as we take the measure of the third scene of measure for measure, as we encounter the Duke himself in conference with a friar:

Duke: "No. Holy father, throw away that thought;
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom. Why I desire thee
To give me secret harbour hath a purpose
More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends
Of burning youth."

A very cool speech, and very modern in starting with a reference to a preceding off-stage comment of the friar's occurring just before the curtain, which Globe Theater didn't have anayway, rose. The Duke is implying that the friar has just asked him if the reason behind the Duke's request for a secret harbour in the monastery was for a romantic tryst. Not at all. The Dukester's complete bosom cannot be pierced by the dribbling dart of love. If you're smirking at Shakespeare's use of dribble, note that he only means that Cupid's dart would descend weakly and without effect if aimed at him. The Duke then gets to the point:

Duke: "…I have ever lov'd the life remov'd.
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies,
Where youth, and cost, and witless bravery keeps.
I have deliver'd to Lord Angelo –
A man of stricture and firm abstinence –
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me travell'd to Poland;
For so I have strew'd it in the common ear…."

The Duke's Poland trip was a ruse, though his reluctance to rule is real enough. His willingness to withdraw from public life mirrors that of Duke Senior in As You Like It, who exiled to the woods proclaims:

Duke S: " And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in teh running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it."

Or King Ferdinand of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost:

King F: "Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives
Live register'd upon our brazen tombs,"

Oh yes, and Hamlet:

Ham: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

M4M's Duke, however, has withdrawn from courtly life for a specific reason; he seeks to correct the moral laxity that has befallen his realm:

Duke: "We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'er grown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not for use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock'd than fear'd;"

If the Children's Services Division ever gets wind of this speech, Shakespeare would be tied up in child custody hearings until the Rapture, as my Baptist neighbors here in North Carolina put it. Spare not the rod, and spoil not the populace, is what the Duke seems to be saying, or more exactly don't threaten the rod if you're not going to use it.

The modern parallels are obvious and arise whenever a totalitarian state loses its jackbooted nerve and fails to sufficiently terrorize its subjects. The Soviet Union's crackdowns on restive Hungarians in 1956 and restive Czechs of the Prague Spring of 1968 helped hold all the Soviet satellites in check, while its namby-pamby reaction to Poland in the 1980s led to its downfall. China took heed in responding to Tiananmen Square in 1989. And of course an endless list of insufficiently oppressive dictators, from Ceausescu to Marcos to Sukarno, would agree with the Bard on this point.

Duke: "…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."

In the New York City of the 1990s, Policy Chief Braxton clearly played Angelo to Mayor Giuliani's Duke, as the dynamic duo secured a famous turnaround in public safety through Braxton's "broken windows" policy of enforcing small laws in order to forestall the violation of larger ones. Braxton revived decrees that had been for far longer than fourteen years dead to infliction, allowing the criminal worms within the Big Apple liberty to pluck justice by the nose. The new policy's success bred a bruised mayoral ego over who should get credit for the improvement. (In fact James Q. Wilson deserved credit for the concept, if not its execution in New York).

More later…

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