Nearly every character in the play lacks the knowledge or power necessary to control his or her actions and their attendant repercussions. Of course, this is due in part to the dramatic irony that drives the plot. Because characters lack essential information about their circumstances, they are not as in command of their actions as they may believe. Examples of this are widespread; essentially any character who deals with the disguised Duke is deprived of some control, simply because the Duke uses his greater knowledge to manipulate his subjects.
However, another force behind this lack of agency is characters' inabilities to balance their impulsive desires with their overall self-interest. Oftentimes, initial lapses in self-control cascade into larger predicaments that strip characters of still more individual liberty. Claudio and Juliet, for example, lack the willpower to refrain from premarital sex. This, when discovered, robs them of more freedom still, as they must suffer legal and social penalties. Similarly, Angelo is unable to reconcile his desire for moral rectitude with his sexual desire for Isabella. Because he does not have the fortitude to behave consistently, this disconnect forces him into a cruel and morally reprehensible position--one that leads to his downfall at the play's conclusion.
The most notable—and singular—exception to this trend is the Duke himself. He uses subterfuge to manipulate other characters into fulfilling his—admittedly benign—intentions. It seems like more than a coincidence, then, that the character who wields the most official authority also wields the most individual agency as the plot unfolds. While the Duke's aims may be noble enough, his unique ability to freely act with full information suggests that the deck may be stacked in his favor. This may be intended as a commentary on the coercive power that social hierarchies can exert on those who occupy subordinate roles.
Agency and Society ThemeTracker
Agency and Society Quotes in Measure for Measure
We have strict statutes and most biting laws
(The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds),
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. 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 mock’d than fear’d; 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.
Look, here comes one; a gentlewoman of mine,
Who, falling in the flaws of her own youth,
Hath blister’d her report. She is with child,
And he that got it, sentenc’d; a young man
More fit to do another such offense
Than die for this.
Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel; heaven in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception. The state, whereon I studied,
Is like a good thing, being often read,
Grown sere and tedious; yea, my gravity,
Wherein (let no man hear me) I take pride,
Could I, with boot, change for an idle plume,
Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming!
What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear
That makes these odds all even.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling—’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice, and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the times,
To draw with idle spiders’ strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply.
With Angelo tonight shall lie
His old betrothed (but despised);
So disguise shall by th’ disguised
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.
The tongue of Isabel. She’s come to know
If yet her brother’s pardon be come hither.
But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.
But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears of a credent bulk,
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have liv’d,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge,
By so receiving a dishonor’d life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had liv’d!
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right—we would, and we would not.
For this new-married man approaching here,
Whose salt imagination yet hath wrong’d
Your well-defended honor, you must pardon
For Mariana’s sake; but as he adjudg’d your brother—
Being criminal, in double violation
Of sacred chastity and of promise-breach,
Thereon dependant, for your brother’s life—
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
Then, Angelo, thy fault’s thus manifested;
Which though thou wouldst deny, denies thee vantage.
We do condemn thee to the very block
Where Claudio stoop’d to death, and with like haste.
Away with him!