Duke Vincentio Character Analysis

Duke Vincentio’s rule is in question. He is too soft to enforce the laws against immorality and puts Angelo in his place to rule with an iron fist. When Angelo does this, admittedly highly punitively, he is punished by the Duke.

This could be considered unfair to Angelo. However, Angelo’s actions are so hypocritical that it justifies the Duke’s response. Also the Duke’s punishment of Angelo is measured and is not in excess of his crime.

Juxtaposed with Angelo, the Duke comes across as noble and kind.

It could be said that the Duke is a very good politician in that he knows it would damage his good reputation if he started enforcing laws against behaviours he had previously ignored or permitted.

He delegates wisely in showing his people how strict he could be and that a happy medium would be more welcome. He has not neglected his duties as he spends most of the play in disguise as the Friar, overseeing the action and moulding it where necessary so that everyone who deserves it gets a desirable outcome.

DUKE VINCENTIO
No, holy father; throw away that thought;
Believe not that the dribbling dart of love
Can pierce a complete bosom. Why I desire thee
To give me secret harbour, hath a purpose
More grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends
Of burning youth.
[...]
My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth, and cost, and witless bravery keeps.
I have deliver'd to Lord Angelo,
A man of stricture and firm abstinence,
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me travell'd to Poland;
For so I have strew'd it in the common ear,
And so it is received. Now, pious sir,
You will demand of me why I do this?
[...]
We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock'd than fear'd; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

The Duke’s behaviour is ‘measured’, his punishments are ‘measured’ and his rule is considered and fair. This is reflected in the deliberate tone assigned by Shakespeare to the Duke’s speeches. It is rational, philosophical and measured:

DUKE VINCENTIO
He who the sword of heaven will bear 1770
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practise on the times,
To draw with idle spiders' strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed but despised;
So disguise shall, by the disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.

During the course of the play the Duke falls in love with the chaste Isabella and in fairness to his actions and demeanour, he deserves her hand in marriage when he asks for it. However, we do not find out whether Isabella consents to marry the Duke.

Perhaps it is better for her to remain virginal in the audiences’ mind in order to maintain her integrity for refusing to give her body for her brother’s life? Perhaps it would be considered vulgar to accept there and then?