‘Law’, ‘Mercy’, and ‘Justice’ are three of the main concepts repeatedly used in Measure for Measure. There are no simple deductions to be made from this fact: the meaning of the play cannot be summed up as a kind of mathematical equation, Law plus Mercy equals Justice. The words themselves are not presented unambiguously. ‘Law’ is usually qualified by adjectives implying that Viennese law is harsh by its very nature – ‘strict statutes and most biting laws’ (1.3.19), ‘the hideous law’ (1.4.63), ‘the angry law’ (3.1.201) – but there is also a series of striking, sometimes faintly ludicrous, images suggesting that the law is despised and ineffective. Law is like ‘an o’er-grown lion in a cave / That goes not out to prey’ (1.3.22–3) or the ‘threatening twigs of birch’ (1.3.24) used to whip children; if not applied effectively it will be like the motionless scarecrow that the birds of prey regard as ‘Their perch, and not their terror’ (2.1.4), or will ‘Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop, / As much in mock as mark’ (5.1.319–20). The result is a paradoxical double image: the law can frequently be ignored with impunity, but may suddenly and unpredictably inflict savage punishment, with a kind of arbitrariness that is half accepted and half resented, as in the opening speeches of Claudio.
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