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The Power to Judge

Measure for Measure: the title brings to mind justice. Pulled from the Gospel of Matthew, the title reminds the reader that judgment falls not to man but to God:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

Portrait of James VI of Scotland, I of England and Ireland (1600s).

For with what judgment

ye judge, ye shall be

judged and with what

measure ye mete, it shall be

measured unto you again.

In thinking of the quote, the title becomes a clever introduction to the play, reminding the audience that justice will prevail and that no one is safe from that justice. If only God can dole out punishment, then those in leadership must become gods. In the early 1600s there was no separation between the Church and the State; political power was divine right.

At the 1603 coronation of James I, a sermon delivered by the Bishop of Winchester pronounced that even though  royalty are not “Gods by nature” they are “gods by Office”[sic]. The function of the regent is to provide reward and punishment in place of God. The King will judge you on earth and God will judge you in the afterlife. When James ascended the throne of England he was no stranger to royal power, having been King of Scotland since his childhood. A few years prior to his cousin Queen Elizabeth’s death, James published The True Law of Free Monarchies, a treatise on the monarch’s absolute power. Using religious language and biblical quotations, James explained how a monarchy, “as resembling the divinity, approacheth nearest to perfection” of any other style of political leadership. It is not surprising that James turned to the Bible to demonstrate his authority. After all, he made himself a household name for centuries by commissioning an English translation of the Bible known still as the “King James Bible.” The translation addressed Puritan concerns with previous translations and reflected the structure of the Church of England.

The Church of England was relatively new when James came to power. The history of the Church’s growth played out, at times painfully, in his family. About thirty years before James was born to the ill-fated Mary Stuart, Henry VIII was declared head of the Church of England, effectively negating any power from the Pope and breaking with Catholicism. The Protestant Church of England was further solidified under Queen Elizabeth. The Catholic Mary Stuart’s abdication from the Scottish monarchy and subsequent execution left the toddler James as the King, under the guidance of her Protestant half-brother.

By the time he took over rule in England, James was eager to unite Scotland and England and rule over both as “King of Great Britain.” This expansion of power further cemented his authority. As King of England, he now stood at the head of the Church of England, a more settled church than that in Scotland. Catholicism as a practice, however, had not disappeared from England, despite the persecution of priests. As he took power, James spoke of leniency toward practicing Catholics, at least those who worshiped in secret. In simple words, it was a case of don’t ask, don’t tell.

This feeling of relative security was not true in other elements of James’ governance. James installed more layers of government oversight, including elements of state spying and higher levels of bureaucracy. Elizabeth was not a lenient ruler, but James came into the monarchy with a show of power. Within the first few years of his reign, James’ rule grew increasingly harsh as he faced a number of assassination attempts, the most well-known being Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament, known as the “Gunpowder Plot.” The arrest and torture of those who betrayed the crown became what historian Alvin B. Kernan refers to as a “theater of punishment.” The public demonstrations of the law’s power created an environment not only of justice but of unlimited authority over the citizens. The government’s unlimited power manifested through extensive enforcement of laws and seemingly senseless clemency. Mercy played an important part in these theatrics, showing that the King’s government, like a God, has the ability to give and the ability to take away.

One of the communities to which James showed generosity was the theatre. Under his patronage the Lord Chamberlain’s Men changed their name to The King’s Men. While under Elizabeth’s rule, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed before court three times a year, James’ taste for performances led to a boom in bookings for The King’s Men; they performed in front of royalty on average nearly fourteen times a year. On December 26, 1604, the audience at Whitehall, including King James, watched Measure for Measure. There is no way of knowing how James may have reacted to Shakespeare’s dark vision of perverse power and the reach of authority. Did he see a defense of his own use of divinely ordained absolute justice? Or did he see a cautionary tale of how justice could be perverted in a Catholic community? We will never know. But what is known, is that Shakespeare and The King’s Men continued to perform before Court with regularity for the following decade.

Hannah J. Hessel, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her third season at STC and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.

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