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. 

 O, that it were as like as it is true!


Name: Temperance - Measure for Measure

Dramatis Personae: Isabella; Duke Vincentio as Friar Lodovic; Marianna; Ragozine.

Astrology: Sagittarius, Mercury

Hebrew Letter: NUN


 Text & Context: The Hebrew letter nun means "fish", symbol of life and Christ. Nun's friendly cognate is self-evident. Nun represents both faithfulness and the reward for faithfulness. Its ordinal number is 14, while its gematria number is 50, the number of Jubilee and Pentecost; the width of Noah's ark in cubit; the number of books in Genesis. In Kabbalah, there are 50 gates of Wisdom as well as 50 gates of Impurity; Moses, the law giver, who designated Hosea - Son of Nun - for his successor, could not cross the 50th gate. The card's star sign, Sagittarius, is half man, half beast. Its element is fire, which brings light and warmth, but uncontrolled causes great destruction.

 In the Temperance card, Isabella is at the center, straddling the dichotomous worlds of judgment and love. She exists within the Vesica Piscis, the sacred heart wherein the microcosm and macrocosm meet. Crowning her is the hooded monk, Ludovico. The branches she holds aloft are aconitum, commonly called monkshood, but also Queen of Poisons & women's bane. Said to be created by Hecate, Medea attempted to poison Theseus with a cup of it and Athena used it to transform Arachne into a spider. In Sejanus his Fall, in which Shakespeare played a part, Jonson repeats the notion, reinforced by Gerard in his Herbal, that aconitum "timely taken hath a healing might against the scorpion’s stroke"; the Zodiac sign Scorpio is explicitly linked with sexuality. The corseted framework Isabella inhabits is a characteristic design used to illustrate the frontispiece of Renaissance books, incorporating elements of architecture and trompe l'oeil.  

 In The Merchant of Venice, Portia's claim "the quality of mercy is not strained" is strained to the point where it's rent in twain, revealing moneylenders inside the temple and a carte blanche for the moneyed elite. She preaches spirit of the law over letter and practices pettifoggery. In Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio's stand-in Angelo has an answer for Isabella's almost identical argument, in short: the letter and the spirit are interwoven; law is subject to its own prescriptions and attains mercy by remaining true; to show mercy for the guilty would be unmerciful to the innocent; when leniency is hurtful, strictness is mercy. Angelo's argument is from the top down; Shylock's, from the bottom. How is this conundrum of course, embodied by Vincentio's leniency and Angelo's severity, solved in the play Measure for Measure?

 Theologically, Measure for Measure is unlike anything Shakespeare attempted elsewhere. It begins as a drama and becomes a comedy, representing along the way a mix of Neo-Platonic and Gnostic theosophy. In Orphite Gnosticism, the "God" of Genesis, having created a defective world and speaking in the plural, is not whom he claims to be. He is a false god, an envious god, who lies and misleads and whose "vengeance is mine". Drops as of water of the Divine-hood have been imprisoned in his human creation, and his prohibition against eating the fruits of the Trees of Knowledge are a proof of his evil intent toward mankind. Christ is likened to the serpent, who leads humanity to the knowledge of the True Divinity through the Divine spark within each one of us. "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."


 When Yahweh told Moses he would not talk in "dark speeches", the word he used was "parables", Christ's mode of speech to the people. Measure for Measure is such a parable. Recall the fantastical Duke of "dark corners" who "would have dark deeds darkly answer'd". He holds up to man's nature a glass that man may see himself through, darkly. Aiding him in this is Angelo, the Lucifer figure, assuming the place of God the Father, the "eye for an eye" Yahweh of the Old Testament and represented in Christ's day by the Pharisees. The question of whose justice is Christ's sacrifice a requirement - God's or Lucifer's - is obviated by their union, Angelo in Vincentio's stead as the imposture god in the Garden of Eden. Duke Vincentio meanwhile, descended from his seat to live among the people, is as the Holy Spirit revealed to humanity at Pentecost, symbolized by a flame in the darkness, the pneuma that "bloweth where it listeth". Isabella, as nun, represents the female aspect of Christ, the Church or "Bride of Christ", his agent on earth. Isabella's brother Claudio is sentenced to death not for sins, but acts of questionable lawlessness; for, in fact, the act of love. Through the substitution of the bed and head, Ludovico facilitates redemption of Claudio and Juliet and their unborn child. Christ is the God of Forgiveness, and Isabella - as God's agent - must have it for Angelo. Indeed, she and he and we must have it for Lucifer, for Forgiveness to mean anything, for the Light to be seen, for the droplet of each individual's soul to flow back to the Divine sea; and for Forgiveness itself to become what it is: Atonement.

 By play's end, the situation of every citizen of Vienna, morally or otherwise, has gone unchanged. Save, that is, for its main characters, and, by extension, those honorary citizens of Vienna: the audience. In a play of stand-ins, disguises, substitutes, and scape-goats, the dramatis personae act as surrogates for both the Vienna of the play and the viewers of the play. Small, internal, individual steps are made which in turn add up to manifest change in the real world. The rigidity of the first half of the play changes - like a duke changing into a monk into a husband, a nun into a sinner into a wife - into a flowing eco-system. The correcting and correctness of its course needs no self-reflection. The change brought about as a result represents how change must come - how true change can only come - from within. 

Intertext: Crowns 8 Vincentio; King of Swords Angelo.

Crib Notes