Isabella says: It is excellent to have a lion’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. She has seen what others haven’t: Angello is not only lion-like but, being invested with power, he has become a giant as well. Authority?
Isabella goes on. Merciful heaven! Thou (i.e. God’s heavenly mercy) rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt splittest the unwedgeable (not able to be split with a wedge) and gnarled oak than the soft myrtle. She sees that it is in fact the mercy of God – God’s desire to forgive - and not God’s just judgment – that changes the hardest of hearts.
Isabella continues. But man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he’s most assured, his glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep. She has rightly observed that men are proud, that when they are given “a little brief authority” they become like angry apes, convinced of their rightness despite their actual ignorance. The angels weep – Angelo is proud.
Shakespeare coined another interesting phrase about men – about men in authority in particular: his glassy essence. Experts believe Shakespeare is here putting forward the view that the essence of man is like a glass lens which man uses to examine others. When that lens – that glassy essence – examines itself, however, it sees nothing – it looks through itself being like glass.
Authority? A little brief authority?
Has this anything to do with what happens when you put a man in uniform?
The media is full of reports about men in authority doing wrong or acting with callousness towards others. Robert Maxwell. Senior clergymen. Teachers. Where a little brief authority goes, there goes the angry ape who will even use his authority (as Angello sought to do with Isabella) to grant mercy only in exchange for sexual favours.