Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Artful v. Inartful Deception

Today President Obama suggested that Romney can't say "Everything I've said for the last six months, I didn't really mean. "  The idea being: people can't get away with that because either (1) it's just not right or, more likely, (2) it just won't fly with the American electorate.  Assuming we are talking about (2), the President also seemed to imply that politics in the YouTube age has undergone some kind of sea-change.  (See Ariel's song in The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.)

That is, Obama seems to think that a classic (and very reliable) rhetorical strategy--framing a message to cater to a particular audience--has lost its efficacy because it is now so easy for people to compare conflicting presentations.  But the same technology that enables us to compare messages--and thereby detect substantive shifts--has virtually guaranteed that most of us are drowning in messages.  The postmodern condition has arrived; there is now so much information at our disposal that the odds do not favor betting that people will have the time or inclination to sort through the morass to get at The Truth.

Betting on information overload.  Not really a new strategy.  In fact, that is what Angelo was banking on at the end of Measure for Measure.  (Yes, I am still harping on that one play!)

In case anybody reading this is dying to know what I mean by information overload at the end of Measure for Measure, here are the highlights from the play's climactic final scene:
·         Isabella-the-chaste tells all.
·         Angelo-the-tyrant denies everything.
·         Mariana-the-scorned appears and confirms Isabella’s story and explains that she’s the one who turned up in Angelo’s bed the night before and thus now considers them truly married.
·         Angelo accuses the women of a vast conspiracy against him.
·         Someone brings up the mysterious friar who seemed to have “had a hand in all this.”
·         The Duke says to Angelo that he will punish the women and the friar “to your height of pleasure” and then excuses himself.
·         The Duke returns, wearing his friar outfit.
·         The “friar” gets accused of suborning perjury.
·         Angelo looks on as three innocent people are about to be hauled off to prison.
·         In the nick of time, the Duke reveals himself.  Angelo then promptly confesses and asks to be sentenced to death.  The Duke orders him to marry Mariana first.
·         After the hasty ceremony, Mariana pleads for mercy for Angelo; when the Duke seems unmoved, Mariana begs Isabella to join her petition.
·        Isabella gives (what I think is) a very unconvincing speech about how, even though Angelo condemned her brother Claudio to die for the same offense, Angelo is not really as guilty as Claudio because he did not do the misdeed he intended, so he should be spared.
·         The Duke, still enjoying his little game, tries to comfort Isabella by telling her that at least the brother she thinks is dead is now in a happier place.  Once she agrees, he then produces the “newly married” Claudio, not dead after all. 
·         The Duke proposes to Isabella.

Really.  All this happens in one scene.  Which is why this ditty is not, perhaps, Shakespeare’s most elegant.  Indeed, scholars tend to put it in the “problem play” category because it is neither fish nor fowl, neither comedy nor tragedy.  Also, the play ends with a weird cliffhanger since Isabella is rendered speechless by the Duke’s sudden, slightly creepy marriage proposal—as if she hadn’t had enough surprises for one afternoon!  The play ends with the Duke inviting her—the would-be nun—back to his place to share in all that he has to offer:

Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.
So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know. 

But what makes this play so interesting is what it says implicitly about the distinction between the law and true justice, which is quite different from what the main character says explicitly.  For instance, as the Duke condemns Angelo to die, he says the following—ending with a rather strained rhyming couplet for extra emphasis: 

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.

In other words, the Duke suggests that, to be merciful, the law requires “measure for measure”—i.e., “an eye for an eye”—that Old Testament standard.  And “measure for measure” is, of course, the play’s title.  But “measure for measure” is not the solution upon which the Duke ultimately settles.  Even as he says these words, he knows that Angelo can’t die “for Claudio” because Claudio is still alive.  And the Duke knows this because he is the one who helped prevent the execution.

What’s up with that?  The very name of the play is a deception!  The play is not about obtaining justice by seeking “an eye or an eye” or “measure for measure.”  The play is about the opposite.  It is about how “mercy seasons justice” (See Portia in Merchant of Venice).

In the end, the justice that the Duke dispenses has little to do with the actual law, due process, the rule of reason, or transparency  Instead, when it comes to fixing the misery that Angelo inflicted, the Duke resorts exclusively to (well-intentioned) artifice; he manipulates, lies, wears a disguise, encourages others to pretend to be someone they are not, and incites bending various rules—including the proper way to conduct an execution.  That is, in working to counter and eventually expose the harm caused by Angelo’s insistence that others suffer the full wrath of the law while he puts himself above the law, the Duke relies on a categorically different kind of deception; a more artful, more noble kind.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that the title, although meaning something like "an eye for an eye," is literally about measuring, or perhaps about the impossibility of measuring something like justice. Or maybe it's about taking the proper measures. And to do that, one must be measured, meaning that one uses reason, or ratio (another measure) to resist the quick satisfaction of "eye for eye' justice.