Isabella defines Angelo as an arch-villain(TM). To what extent do you agree with her that Angelo is the villain of the play?
Measure for Measure
Isabella defines Angelo as an ‘arch-villain’. To what extent do you agree with her that Angelo is the villain of the play?
Though he displays many villainous traits and commits some seemingly irredeemable acts of cruelty, it would be unfair to judge Angelo outright as an ‘arch villain’
All of Shakespeare’s plays contain at least one character who displays villainous characteristics. These vary greatly from the remorseless evil of Iago in Othello to the more comedic antagonists whose main role is act as a block against true romance. Angelo poses a problem as does not fit seamlessly into either group.
The dictionary defines the term ‘Villain’ as a wicked person or evil person. Certain actions that Angelo undertakes certainly would lead some to regard him as that. The most obvious of these would be the seemingly cruel act of ordering Claudio’s execution for the human act of impregnating his lover/wife Juliet. This from the outset is an extreme and unjust measure for a crime that even in Jacobean times would not warrant death. This highly puritanical approach to justice can easily be deemed as villainous especially to a more liberal thinking twenty-first century audience. However it is important to note that Angelo is only putting in place the law “it is the law who condemns your brother not I” and his severity only stems from the necessity to reinforce the law “setting it up to fear the birds of prey” especially after the dukes laxity on Vienna.
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Angelo’s role also takes the form of the so-called corrupt magistrate that rose from a novella by Giraldi Cinthio and George Whetstones Promos and Cassandra. Jacobean audiences familiar with these texts would recognise Angelo in this role as a rigid judge who commits the ultimate act of hypocrisy by executing one for a crime he himself attempts to commit with Claudio’s sister Isabella.
Like Promos, Angelo abuses his power to achieve his own gains over a woman and cruelly manipulates Isabella to submit to him “Who will believe thee Isabel, My unsoiled name th’austerness of my life…..will so your accusation outweigh” By taking advantage of Isabella’s love for her brother and desire to save his life Angelo demonstrates a cruel and manipulative streak in Angelo that for many twenty-first century audiences would certainly place him as a villain. However he could be exonerated by the fact that it was routine for patriarchal society males to exercise their power and supposed superiority over women. However for many twenty-first century audiences, particularly feminists, this only makes his character even more heinous.
Yet there would have been certainly those in the Jacobean era who would have regarded Angelo’s behaviour as abhorrent. In a period of where many people were deeply religious and God-fearing, a woman’s virtue and chastity was of the upmost importance as Isabella so rigidly declares “More than our brother is out chastity” Forcibly taking this virtue from a woman that would ultimately ruin her life would for some sixteenth century males be villainous. With regards to the twentieth-century where universal perceptions of chastity and sexuality have shifted for many Angelo still remains a villain as even with his lust satisfied with ‘Isabella’ , Angelo proceeds to have Claudio executed. Even more chilling is the fact he feels more fear that Isabella may oust him as hypocrite “How might she tongue me!” than any real genuine remorse for Claudio’s death. This lack of remorse reflects one of Shakespeare’s most evil creations; Iago of Othello. Though Angelo does not display the same inerrant evil as Iago, this link to his character does provide more evidence of his villain
Yet if Shakespeare had wanted to present Angelo as an ‘arch-villain’ it is questionable why he did not have Claudio’s head sent to Isabella just as his counterparts did in both Cinthio and Whetstones stories. It is therefore clear that Shakespeare intended the audience to see Angelo as more than just a tow dimensional villain.
However from another twentieth century perspective, Angelo’s character emerges less as the corrupt magistrate but as a complex character conflicted between his sense of morality and his human desires. Angelo is a “man of stricture and firm abstinence” who is not on the surface unlike politicians of both the Jacobean era and the twenty-first century. Yet bound by his moral beliefs and those expected of a man in power when he is faced with the lust he tries to deny himself, his emotions begin to overtake his rationality. In the first of his two soliloquies Angelo rages against himself over the sudden desire he feels “What’s this? What’s this? Is it her fault or mine...O fie fie fie what art thou Angelo?” The agony over his feelings also emerges in another soliloquy “Heaven hath my empty words whilst my invention ….hangs on Isabel”
By giving Angelo these soliloquies Shakespeare is inviting the audience to see Angelo as a man suffocated by his mounting human desire coming into conflict with his position and his judgement on others in the same position. Within twentieth-century theatre where so-called tortured souls are popular amongst modern playwrights, the audience may feel more empathy for Angelo’s failings. Hence it begs the question is he an arch-villain or merely a weak individual.
We must also consider the character of the Duke and his role in bringing about Angelo’s downfall. Though often portrayed as a benevolent presence or even a Christ-like figure, The Duke’s manipulation of Angelo to remedy his own failings as a leader has led one to question the Dukes character. The Duke seemingly knowing of Angelo’s openness to hypocrisy “Lord Angelo is precise; scarce confesses that his blood flows; or that his appetite is more bread than stone” allows him to be a scapegoat in order to be absolved of where he himself has failed. This act of cowardice and failure to face up to his misdeeds may for twentieth century audiences in particular place him in the role of the villain rather than Angelo.
To conclude in Measure for Measure there are no outright, atypical villains. Angelo though antagonistic has none of the malevolence that made characters such as Iago and Claudius so evil. Angelo is merely part of the ensemble of characters that that all are a mixture of faults and virtues. And considering the conflicting nature of tragedy against comedy in this play, Angelo’s character is nether unfitting or unsurprising.