Wisdom From A Problem Play

In Measure for Measure Claudio is condemned to die by Angelo, the man commissioned by the duke to take his place for an interim term. Claudio’s offense is particularly mild as he merely got his girlfriend Julia pregnant before they were officially solemnized. Claudio’s life goes from happy to dire overnight, and death pervades his every thought while he awaits to see if he will end up paying with his life at his young and inexperienced age.

The duke, disguised as a friar, goes to visit Claudio in prison. He asks him if he hopes for pardon from the acting deputy Angelo. He responds that he is prepared for death yet hopes to live. The disguised duke responds with one of the most magnificent speeches in all of Shakespeare which begins:

“Be absolute for death: either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter.” 3.1 5-6

Shakespeare is showing the vexing nature of having a divided mind, and how having an attitude of indifference makes bad haps seem worse and good ones seem unimportant; we therefore must be absolute. This actually makes sense applied to anything. If we set out to do and we are absolute, we are either going to achieve what we set out to accomplish, or fail knowing that we gave it our all, which is a win in itself. If we are not absolute our failures sting the more and our triumphs seem all the more as trivial.

Shakespeare cautions us to be grateful in any case:

“Happy thou art not; for what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get, and what thou hast, forgetest.” 3.1 21-23

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