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Angelo: we must not make a scarecrow of the law

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8: 3-11
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, makes it known that he intends to leave the city on a diplomatic mission. He leaves the government in the hands of a strict judge, Angelo. Angelo discovers that a young man, Claudio, has made his fiancée pregnant with child. The fact that they are not married makes Claudio, in the eyes of the law of Vienna, guilty of a crime punishable by death.

Angelo, ruling Vienna on behalf of the Duke, decides that Claudio must be executed. Please see the similar incident from John’s first-century eye-witness biography of Jesus. 

‘Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.’ (Thomas Jefferson, Third U S President, 1743-1826)
Angelo’s reasoning about the carrying out of the death penalty in this case has to do with scarecrows. “We must not make a scarecrow of the law,/ setting it up to fear the birds of prey,/ and let it keep one shape, till custom make it / their perch and not their terror.” Angelo is convinced that the law must not become a mere scarecrow which tries to frighten people by appearing stong but never actually moving. If that became the case – if the law did not have consequences for Claudio – that other law breakers would realize that the scarecrow (the law) was lifeless…..

Look again at the AD 30 incident in bold above. Jesus is saying “Yes, you can carry out the law but only those who have not sinned may execute it.”

Interestingly, Shakespeare requires Angelo to face this issue as well. He does this through an elder statesman named Escalus. He gently asks Angelo, “whether you had not sometime in your life erred in this point which now you censure him, and pulled the law upon you.”

What would I reply to that? We all know our guilty deeds.

Angelo’s response is quite clear. “It’s one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall…. You may not so eliminate his offence because I have had such faults. Instead, tell me that, when I, that censure him, do so offend, let mine own judgment pattern out my death, and everything be impartial. Sir, he must die.” Angelo wants the law to apply to him – no discrimination.

Angelo is determined to do justice – to execute the offender, Claudio. In doing that he agrees that all his offences must also be punished – without mercy. Not for nothing did Shakespeare give this play its title: Measure for Measure….

But the play, like life itself, reveals the truth that we all try to hide. Claudio has a sister – a young, attractive trainee nun named Isabella. She pleads with Angelo for her brother’s life. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio’s life – but only if she, Isabella, will sleep with him…….

Angelo has made it clear (to Escalus) that he is prepared to suffer the death penalty (prescribed by the law of Vienna) if he (like Claudio) does such a thing. Not only is he arranging to do that very thing but he is also involving young Isabella in the deed……

‘Every true man's apparel fits your thief.’  (William Shakespeare, Playwright, Measure for Measure, 1564-1616)
How will Angelo escape the law? By secrecy. He won’t be found out. Even if Isabella brings it to light he will deny it and everyone will believe him rather than the girl.

That’s that then. But is it?

Unfortunately for Angelo – the Angelo who did not want the law to be a mere scarecrow which failed to punish (or even, in the end, to frighten) – there was one person above him: the Duke of Vienna.

Would he say, to Angelo as well as to Claudio, what Jesus said to the woman (above): “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”  
Richard Syvret

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