‘Lawful Mercy’ in Measure for Measure

Jacqueline Tasioulas and John Tasioulas

in Reason, Morality, and Law

Published in print March 2013 | ISBN: 9780199675500
Published online May 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191757228 | DOI:
‘Lawful Mercy’ in Measure for Measure

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John Finnis' writings on punishment are characterized by a retributivist pluralism: retributive justice is essential and fundamental to the justification of punishment, but other values also play an important justificatory role, both with regard to the institution in general and to particular decisions made within it, such as sentences passed by judges. Although mercy is widely supposed to be a value that tempers retributive justice in deliberation about punishment, it does not receive any sustained treatment in Finnis' writings. However, taking Finnis' own philosophical engagement with Shakespeare as an inspiration, this chapter investigates the understanding of justice and mercy in Measure for Measure. The play reveals that the question of when to apply the law strictly and when to exercise leniency is often highly complex, and that a satisfactory response to it transcends both the rigour of the ‘precise’ Angelo and the laxity of the self-indulgent Duke. Instead, it is Isabella who offers the most compelling portrayal of ‘lawful mercy’ as a compassionate departure from the strict application of law, a departure that is nonetheless guided by reason.

Keywords: Finnis; Shakespeare; Measure for Measure; punishment; justice; mercy; retribution; leniency; equity

Chapter.  9988 words. 

Subjects: Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law

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