Auden’s Missing Mercy

The Dyer’s Hand and Measure for Measure on Justice and Love

Josh Retterer / 7.30.20

The constant background of stress caused by a brand-spanking-new kind of plague, combined with widespread social unrest and a particularly contentious election year, have all conspired to put a serious crimp in my attention span. This has become particularly noticeable in my reading habits; it has to be good, like brake-squealing good, for me to go from merely scanning to actually absorbing the words on the page. 

I think part of my problem is that something has been missing from what’s been offered up for consumption of late. It was after reading this little section of an essay from W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, about one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” that I was finally able to put a word to the lack I felt. The word is mercy. I’ve missed it because I need it. We all need it. We know — we know — we do. In this particular essay, titled “The Prince’s Dog,” he explores the nature of mercy in light of the law and the gospel, justice and clemency, and he does it with his usual, shockingly beautiful and penetrating prose. Let’s just say, it’s brake-squealing good: 

In Measure for Measure, Angelo has wronged Isabella and Mariana, and the facts of the wrong become public. Angelo repents and demands that the just sentence of death be passed on him by the Duke. Isabella and Mariana implore the Duke to show mercy. The Duke yields to their prayers and all ends happily. I agree with Professor Coghill’s interpretation of Measure for Measure as a parable in which Isabella is an image for the redeemed Christian Soul, perfectly chaste and loving, whose reward is to become the bride of God; but, to my mind, the parable does not quite work because it is impossible to distinguish in dramatic action between the spirit of forgiveness and the act of pardon. 

The command to forgive is unconditional: whether my enemy hardens his heart or repents and begs forgiveness is irrelevant. If he hardens his heart, he does not care whether I forgive him or not and it would be impertinent of me to say, “I forgive you.” If he repents and asks, “Will you forgive me?” the answer, “Yes,” should not express a decision on my part but describe a state of feeling which has always existed. On the stage, however, it is impossible to show one person forgiving another, unless the wrongdoer asks for forgiveness, because silence and inaction are undramatic. The Isabella we are shown in earlier scenes of Measure for Measure is certainly not in a forgiving spirit — she is in a passion of rage and despair at Angelo’s injustice — and dramatically she could not be otherwise, for then there would be no play. Again, on the stage, forgiveness requires manifestation in action, that is to say, the one who forgives must be in a position to do something for the other which, if he were not forgiving, he would not do. This means that my enemy must be at my mercy; but, to the spirit of charity, it is irrelevant whether I am at my enemy’s mercy or he at mine. So long as he is at my mercy, forgiveness is indistinguishable from judicial pardon. 

The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged, only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish. If the lawbreaker is stronger than the legal authorities, they are powerless to do either. The decision to grant or refuse pardon must be governed by prudent calculation — if the wrong-doer is pardoned, he will behave better in the future than if he were punished, etc. But charity is forbidden to calculate in this way: I am required to forgive my enemy whatever the effect on him may be. 

One may say that Isabella forgives Angelo and the Duke pardons him. But, on the stage, this distinction is invisible because, there, power, justice, and love are all on the same side. Justice is able to pardon what love is commanded to forgive. But to love, it is an accident that the power of temporal justice should be on its side; indeed, the Gospels assure us that, sooner or later, they will find themselves in opposition and that love must suffer at the hands of justice.

Auden added later in the same essay that God “creates a world which he continues to love although it refuses to love him in return.”

I believe my missing mercy, once lost, is now found.