In the English painter Thomas Kirk’s “Measure For Measure – Act V, Scene I” painting, he renders the last dramatic scene of the play as a powerful moment of moral vindication. By the end of Act 1, the themes of mercy and justice, vice and piety, appearance and reality have been established but collide in the last scene of the play. Kirk expresses this sense of dramatic tension by capturing the moment of the Duke’s reveal, if the Duke’s bared head and the looks of shock or shame on the faces of the bystander are anything to go by.
There can be no mistaking the Duke; while nearly everyone else shrinks away into the darkness, he is pushed forward on the canvas with the same amount of force that he is pushing the provost aside. Furthermore, his face and friar’s habit are bathed in light. The use of light is effective in shifting attention to the Duke, given both the general darkness of the scene and the way the provost is bathed in shadows in order to provide an immediate contrast to the duke’s brighter figure. That the Duke should command the center of attention is expected as, going back to the theme of appearance and reality, he has spent most of the play disguised as the humble Friar Lodowick, only to be revealed as the powerful Duke. The light is also used to highlight the Duke’s godlike nature as the angle of the light indicates that it comes from heaven itself. Earlier in Measure for Measure, the Duke remarks, “He who the sword of heaven will bear/should be as holy as severe” (III.2.249-50). Although he is not as severe as he could be, he is kind and merciful.
In contrast, his appointed deputy Angelo is harsh and without mercy. In Act 2, Scene 2, Angelo establishes himself as a strict enforcer of the law when he tells Escalus that they “must not make a scarecrow of the law” (II.i.1). When Escalus argues that they should be more judicious and merciful in their application of the law, using Claudio’s case as an example, Angelo responds, “Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, another thing to fall” (II.i.17). His words will come to haunt him because once the Duke reveals his disguise, Angelo’s disguise as a reputable man is laid exposed to all. Due to his sense of overbearing shame, he is shown hiding his face with his fur-lined cloak. Furthermore, his body is shown twisted away from the Duke’s measuring look, as if distance and blinded eyes will hide his shameful misdeeds. However, he cannot hide from the viewer – Kirk has positioned him in the middle of the painting, seated three steps above the other characters. Furthermore, while his figure is not as well-lit as the Duke’s, he is fairly well-lit.
Also twisted away in shame is Lucio, who stands between the figures of the Duke and Angelo is Lucio. He is depicted with two feathers in his hat, which highlights his pompous nature. However, all of his usual arrogance is stripped away; instead, he is childishly biting his nails. He has every reason to be nervous as he has engaged in slander and lies throughout the play. Now that he has been caught, he must rely on the mercy of the man he spoke ill of on multiple accounts.
However, not everyone has reason to fear the Duke’s justice. While Escalus could not go against Angelo’s will during his temporary reign, he remained loyal, merciful, and wise throughout the ordeal. As such, he is depicted sitting next to Angelo, with a composed expression and his right hand out as if to get a handle on the situation. While other major characters are featured in the painting, it is really the Duke, Angelo, and Lucio whose countenance and positioning allows the moral drama to play out.
Kirk, Thomas. Measure For Measure – Act V, Scene I. 18th Century. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Not on Display. FAMSF. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.
Shakespeare, William. “Measure for Measure.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin, 2002. 525-64. Print.