Two days and I am still trying to explain why this blawg is called “True Complaint.”
The “true complaint” belongs to Isabella. In Measure for Measure, Isabella, the righteous virgin, gets justice for herself, her brother, and for another woman—but as part of a massive subterfuge. At the urging of a mysterious friar, she leads Angelo to believe that she is going to go through with the forced liaison he has proposed after all. Meanwhile, with the help of some dim lighting, dark cloaks, and other devices, the woman who actually shows up in Angelo’s bedroom at the appointed hour is someone else. She has a history with Angelo. Her name is Mariana. Turns out Angelo had already ruined her life five years earlier. He broke a marriage contract when he found out the dowry wasn’t going to be hefty enough for his liking. For some crazy reason, which probably only makes sense because a man wrote the play, Mariana agrees to go along with this bait-and-switch. Later, she even claims that she still loves Angelo. Or, at the very least, she pretends that she can tolerate the guy.
The mysterious friar who helps Isabella orchestrate this subterfuge is actually Duke Vincentio in disguise. That is, the Duke never really left town. After putting Angelo in charge, he must have had some inkling that things might go awry. In any event, by snooping around the court, the prison, and all about town, the Duke knows that Claudio has been condemned to death, that Isabella has pleaded for his life, and that Angelo has responded to that plea by proposing an unseemly bit of quid pro quo. Yet the Duke does not reveal himself or openly intervene. Instead, he is the one who tracks down Mariana and proposes the subterfuge to Isabella, who doesn’t know his true identity.
After the subterfuge is executed flawlessly, Angelo reneges on his promise to pardon Isabella’s brother Claudio anyway. So behind the scenes, the mysterious friar orchestrates another bit of trickery such that some more deserving reprobate is sent to the executioner in Claudio’s place while Claudio is secretly kept alive. Then, in the play’s final scene, the Duke abandons his disguise and pretends to return to town. He also pretends to rejoice at his reunion with the “worthy” Angelo:
My very worthy cousin, fairly met!
Our old and faithful friend, we are glad to see you.
In fact, the Duke lays it on rather thick:
We have made inquiry of you; and we hear
Such goodness of your justice, that our soul
Cannot but yield you forth to public thanks,
Forerunning more requital.
While the Duke goes on and on about his gratitude to Angelo for his service, Isabella enters. She throws herself at the Duke’s feet and proceeds to sue for justice. In fact, she uses the word “justice” five times in the short speech that launches her “true complaint”:
Justice, O royal duke! Vail your regard
Upon a wrong'd, I would fain have said, a maid!
O worthy prince, dishonour not your eye
By throwing it on any other object
Till you have heard me in my true complaint
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice!
The Duke, of course, knows exactly why Isabella is so worked up. But he continues to play dumb, referring her to Angelo who is, at the moment, still the titular head of state:
Relate your wrongs; in what? by whom? be brief.
Here is Lord Angelo shall give you justice:
Reveal yourself to him.
O worthy duke,
You bid me seek redemption of the devil:
Hear me yourself; for that which I must speak
Must either punish me, not being believed,
Or wring redress from you. Hear me, O hear me, here!
Angelo responses by accusing his accuser of having “infirm wits.” And he uses an unfortunate metaphor to explain that she probably became unhinged after her brother was “[c]ut off by course of justice.” He then tries to inoculate himself against further charges by predicting that “she will speak most bitterly and strange” because she is angry about his refusal to save her brother from the executioner’s blade.
Isabella is not, however, so easily silenced. She admits that the things she has to say are definitely “strange”—but they are strange because of the depth and breadth of Angelo’s hypocrisy:
Most strange, but yet most truly, will I speak:
That Angelo's forsworn; is it not strange?
That Angelo's a murderer; is 't not strange?
That Angelo is an adulterous thief,
An hypocrite, a virgin-violator;
Is it not strange and strange?
Nay, it is ten times strange.
It is not truer he is Angelo
Than this is all as true as it is strange:
Nay, it is ten times true; for truth is truth
To the end of reckoning.
The Duke, who really seems to get off on pushing his deception to the brink, pretends that he does not believe Isabella. He calls for guards to carry her off to the madhouse: “Away with her! Poor soul,/She speaks this in the infirmity of sense.” Isabella, however, holds her ground, arguing that the only problem is that she cannot find words sufficient to capture the full scope of Angelo’s villainy:
O prince, I conjure thee, as thou believest
There is another comfort than this world,
That thou neglect me not, with that opinion
That I am touch'd with madness! Make not impossible
That which but seems unlike: 'tis not impossible
But one, the wicked'st caitiff on the ground,
May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute
As Angelo; even so may Angelo,
In all his dressings, caracts, titles, forms,
Be an arch-villain, believe it, royal Prince:
If he be less, he's nothing; but he's more,
Had I more name for badness.
Things are not as they seem, she complains. And at last, the Duke relents and permits her to explain. She then urges him to use his “reason” to “make the truth appear, where it seems hid,/And hid the false [that] seems true.” In other words, Isabella asks for permission to disclose the facts that, when viewed through the lens of reason, will reveal the truth and expose the fake veneer that is currently masquerading as the truth. That is certainly a principle objective of a legal proceeding: use reason to make the truth that seems hidden appear and then try to make right some of the “badness.” But, unfortunately, in practice, making, enforcing, and adjudicating the law are all compromised operations. Complaints that are filed are not always true; true complaints are not always pursued; true complaints that are pursued do not always result in righting wrongs; and even true complaints that are litigated successfully do not ever make the wronged parties truly whole again. That reality—that the law is a blunt instrument that can easily be abused and yet is something we can’t live without—is, I think, the complex message that Measure for Measure teaches.
But this post is already too long. So I will continue after a break.