The Duke is the most important and complex character of the play. He is the inventor of the events, but an actor at the same time. From the beginning to the end he acts his part in the story but he is the only person aware of the reality beyond the appearance. He watches over the proceedings of the plat w 434f59e ith an absolute power, and in the end he gives punishment to those who deserves him.
In the starting situation, the Duke laments that his city is spoiled and its people too indulgent. He decides to leave the city, and names Angelo to be his replacement.
The Duke asks a friar in the town, Friar Thomas, to give him refuge; the Duke does not intend to leave town, but rather he intends to stay and observe Angelo at work. He says that he gave Angelo power because he knew the city had to be cleaned up, and the Duke didn't want to do it himself. But then, he adds that he doubts that Angelo is actually as steely as he seems, and intends to see if this appearance is indeed false.
The Duke introduces one of the first themes of importance in the play, and that is actions vs. words. He announces that he is doing one thing, and then acts completely different from his stated intent. This calls forth questions why the Duke would be deliberately misleading, and what his overall intent for this deception of leaving the city is.
This is a theme reappearing in the work; some things might appear to be good or bad, but these appearances belie the true essence of the thing. Although the Duke insists he must hasten away from the town, he actually stays in secret; and although he claims to be leaving Angelo in temporary control of the city, we see by the end of the play that this is some kind of test of his character.
Why is the Duke proclaiming his intent to do one thing, and then deliberately doing something else? Why the divide between what he says he will do, and what he actually does?
The Duke's motivations are shady, and completely unexplained by the play:
why must he test Angelo?
Why does he bother to conceive of this scenario?
Why does he announce that the laws need to be better enforced, and then run away at the crucial moment?
The Duke's behavior is unsatisfying on many levels, as he is abusing his power and manipulating people shamelessly, while trying to appear as a benevolent ruler.
Key to the plot, as most of the events in the play are manipulated by the Duke. Without his manipulation of people and events, Claudio would have died, Angelo have remained unexposed, and Mariana would not have gotten married. Justice depends upon the Duke's machinations and manipulations within the play, however self-serving his actions may turn out to be.
At the end of the play, we get a glimpse of the Duke as a kind of director of the play; he tells people what parts to do and how, has orchestrated a complicated set-up to achieve the end results that he desires. All that has been pre-arranged and staged by the Duke is being executed before his eyes; his manipulations are being acted out in a public place, to the end results that the Duke wants justice. The theme of manipulation comes to the fore, as we begin to realize how much of the action of the play has been driven or made by the Duke. The Duke, although he seems benevolent and fair when compared with Angelo, is actually not quite as good as he seems; he is secretive, conniving, and manipulates people shamelessly, even if it is toward good ends. For example, the fact that he decides to tell Isabella that her brother is dead, so that she can be happier later, serves no purposes but the Duke's hidden ones. Rather than trying to make things right, here he is deciding what outcome he wants, and is manipulating what people find out in order to produce these results. Through these self-serving machinations, the Duke appears less benevolent, and more like a control addict. The Duke tells Isabella "trust not my holy order if I pervert your course"; this is meant to comfort Isabella, but represents a big license on the Duke's part.
Throughout the play, he has used his disguise as a friar to gain people's trust and complicity in his plans; he plays on Isabella's trust in the clergy to get her to go along with his plan. It is all well and good that the Duke is doing most of this for the benefit of Claudio, but he is assuming liberties and roles that are not his and that he knows nothing of. It seems almost like an abuse of the priesthood for a man in a friar's disguise to be allowed to assume the duties, status, and respect that go along with the office merely for wearing the clothes. The Duke, in his pretending to be an actual friar and assuming all the rights and responsibilities that go along with it, might be going too far in his do-gooding.
The Duke also, in the first scene of the first act, uses paradoxical terms that convey the duties of a ruler; he says he will lend Angelo both his "terror" and his "love" to rule with, showing how a ruler must be authoritarian, yet caring for his subjects. However, the Duke's support of Angelo is misguided, perhaps even deliberately so; it is ironic that Escalus backs him, and that the Duke makes great statements supporting Angelo, when even he might know Angelo's flaws. He claims to know Angelo thoroughly enough to know that he will be a good ruler; yet, this whole scenario takes the appearance of a test, with the Duke's departure contrived, and his observation of Angelo's rulership in disguise.
The Duke claims not to like the people's "loud applause and aves vehement"; yet, considering his immaculately timed appearance at the end of the play, he is probably setting himself up for this purpose, to gain more acclaim. Indeed, the Duke gains in stature through Angelo's rule, as many wish to have him back, and recognize how good they had it; once the Duke is back, people have finally learned to appreciate his permissiveness, which they had not before.
In the first scene of the third act, the Duke voices one of the main themes of the play: "for terror, not to use, in time the rod becomes more mocked than feared." This, he claims, is the reason that he is leaving Angelo in charge. He is tired of seeing the city become "like an o'ergrown lion in a cage," as his simile states, and thinks somehow that Angelo will return the city to order. He no longer wants "the baby to beat the nurse"; the baby symbolizes the people of the city, who know no better than they do, and the nurse symbolizes the governing powers, which are needed to teach the people and keep them from going astray. The theme of disguise is introduced, as the Duke will remain in hidden in the city, and is about to take on the guise of a friar to conceal himself. Disguise allows all of the Duke's machinations to take place. Without disguise, and the way the Duke uses and abuses the privileges that this disguise affords him, many events in the play would not have taken place at all. Again, the theme of disguise means that the Duke is in a privileged condition, able to see, hear, and influence things that he would not have access to as a ruler, separated by power and position from his own people.
He posits that although Angelo "scarce confesses that his blood flows," he believes that there might be more behind this strict appearance. The Duke is indeed testing Angelo, though he didn't say so in the first scene; his motivations are still a bit hazy though they are very much rationalized by this point. It is ironic that the Duke would declare, in the guise of an honest friar, that Angelo is "just," when he and others know this to be falsehood. Just as the Duke was incorrect in his initial appraisal of Angelo's ability to rule, here he is similarly wrong in his belief that "when vice makes mercy, mercy's so extended". The Duke tends to appraise Angelo's character too kindly, and believe that Angelo actually knows mercy, which he has not shown to this point. However, the Duke is clearly a very canny character; he has no intention of giving in while Angelo has not delivered on his promise, and wants to teach Angelo something about mercy, a theme running through the entire play. Again, the Duke uses his canny logic and persuasive skills to gain complicity for his plots. He is able to extract mercy from the Provost, though Angelo unfortunately cannot be similarly moved.
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