On a first read, the first scene of Measure for Measure sets up Angelo–as his name intimates–as pure and righteous, using the word’s historically accurate meanings:
- conforming to the precepts of divine law or accepted standards of morality; upright, virtuous
- true; correct, exact
- “righteous, adj., n., adv., and int.; A.1.a, and 3.a” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 1 November 2015.
Note: it’s not until the nineteenth century that the word takes on its more negative connotation (“characterized by affected or hypocritical moral rectitude or superiority; self-righteous, sanctimonious” [“righteous, adj., n., adv., and int.; A.1.c” OED Online.])
In this opening scene, Escalus says of Angelo, “If any in Vienna be of worth // To undergo such ample grace and honor (of being named deputy), // It is Lord Angelo” (I.i.22-4). Even with this praise, Duke Vincentio advises Angelo that “Mortality and mercy in Vienna // Live in thy tongue and heart” (I.i.44-5). Angelo may be a good man, but the duke still reminds him that while his words can bring punishment, only his heart and bring mercy.
It doesn’t take long to see the proclaimed punishments his tongue brings down. When Escalus attempts to argue for Claudio in Act Two, Scene One, Angelo responds,
Another thing to fall.
You may not so extenuate his offense
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I that censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.
- II.i.17-7, 27-31
Merciful? No. Precise? Yes, and at this point, willing to abide by such punishments himself. He doesn’t seem to to be completely heartless, either; of the “groaning Juliet” (II.ii.15)–as she nears delivery, I’m assuming–he tells the provost to “dispose of her // To some fitter place, and that with speed” (II.ii.16-7). To a nunnery (not “nunnery”), perhaps. Or maybe a “moated grange” (III.i.262).
When the duke deputizes Angelo, Angelo asks for “some more test (be) made of (his) mettle” (I.i.48). I’d argue that we see a continuation of this self-doubt when Angelo asks the provost to “stay a little while” (II.ii.26), when Isabella arrives to beg mercy for her brother. If he doesn’t trust himself to be alone with Isabella, we should not then be surprised by his response when Isabella says goodbye with a “Save your Honor”:
What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she, nor doth she tempt; but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness?
O fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live.
What, do I love her
That I desire to hear her speak again
And feast upon her eyes?
Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite.
- II.ii.161-9, 171-4, 176-8, 182-5
If he has fears about the strength of his own righteousness, it would appear they are well founded. Only in Angelo’s case it’s not overt sexuality (“lightness” or “strumpet”) that “stir(s his) temper” but rather “those things that make (Isabella) good.” His no-longer-quite-righteous self is aroused by her own righteousness.
Of course, I wonder if he’s the only one who has these fears. I keep going back to one of the first things the duke says to Angelo in that opening scene: “There is a kind of character in thy life // That to th’ observer doth thy history // Fully unfold” (I.i.27-29). If my suspicions about the past between the duke and Mariana are true, and this entire absence by the duke is a trap, then this statement takes on a rather ominous tone. I know what you’ve done, Angelo–the duke seems to be saying–and let’s see what happens now.