Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure deals with a problem presented by the strict enforcement of law and justice. There are confrontations between justice and mercy, and the letter of the law and its spirit in the play. Claudio is to be executed for fornication, and this is to be enforced by Angelo as the interim ruler of the city. Although the legitimacy of the death penalty for fornication is questionable, the problem is not the legitimacy of the law itself but the issues of equity and justice revealed in the enforcement of the law.
Angelo is a person who practices justice through rigorous law enforcement, while Duke is a person who is willing to temper strict enforcement with mercy. Angelo’s rigid judgement on crime and punishment is related to that of the Old Testament and of common law; the judgment of the benevolent Duke is based on the New Testament and the judgment of the equity court. This paper discusses justice and mercy, reviewing the contrasting attitudes on crime and punishment reflected in the Bible, and common law as well as equity law in the Renaissance period.