Duke Vincentio uses a common Renaissance allegory, personifying the concept of “nature” as a powerful goddess:
Spirits are not finely touch'd
But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use
The Duke’s allegory imagines “Nature” as a “thrifty” or stingy goddess who creates people but does not distribute positive qualities evenly. Rather, she only imbues a person with her “excellence” if she thinks that she can profit from doing so, either by receiving thanks, or through the good deeds of those whom she has chosen to bless. Many poets and playwrights of the early modern period personified nature in this way, and as a result it is one of the most common allegorical figures of the period across the arts.
In the Duke’s speech, he uses this familiar allegory in order to convince Angelo to assume power in Vienna temporarily. Because Nature isn’t very generous in giving out her gifts, the Duke suggests, she must have big plans for the gifted and bright Angelo. It would be ungrateful, then, for Angelo not to accept his natural gifts by taking the reins of leadership.
The Duke uses a common Renaissance allegory for death in a speech to Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for having a child out of wedlock with Juliet:
Merely, thou art death’s fool,
For him thou labor’st by thy flight to shun,
And yet runn’st toward him still. Thou art not noble,
For all th’ accommodations that thou bear’st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou ’rt by no means
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok’st
Many artists, poets, and playwrights of Shakespeare’s day allegorized the concept of death as a godlike figure, ruling over the afterlife. Shakespeare participates in this tradition by personifying death as a humanlike figure from whom people run in fear, but ultimately serve as a king or god. Like a king, death is imagined here as the head of a court; those who fear death are in turn “death’s fool,” keeping him entertained in the manner of a “fool” or court jester. Though Duke Vincentio criticizes Claudio for being afraid to die, his goal is to help Claudio to be brave and overcome his terror. His allegorical speech suggests that death is inevitable, and that those who are afraid of death are foolish, as their fear cannot avert the unavoidable.