top of page

Criminal Shakespeare: Exploring Law and Justice in Shakespearean Drama

The following article delves into the captivating world of Shakespearean drama, dissecting the complex interplay between law and justice as portrayed in some of his most renowned works. It will unravel the multifaceted nature of criminality within Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and Henry VI, part II, shedding light on who truly holds the reins of justice and the blurred lines between right and wrong.

In Shakespeare’s criminal plays Measure for Measure, Macbeth andHenry VI, part II, it is not always simple to declare what criminality is or determine who the real criminal is. Within these narratives, the exploration of criminality unfolds across multifaceted layers, each play presenting unique challenges in delineating culpability. In Measure for Measure, a departure from conventional comedic tropes, the very foundations of crime and punishment are called into question, exposing the inherent distortions within societal norms. The tragedy of Macbeth lays bare the consequences of Duncan’s weak leadership, prompting the reassessment of culpability amidst the unfolding criminality. Moreover, the role of the witches in Macbeth is also questioned in the sense of their prophetic influence and how much they affect the events taking place by foretelling them. In 2 Henry VI, the machinations of power and control over the crown emerge as catalysts for criminality, sparking inquiries into the mechanisms of governance. Additionally, the trial and conviction of Eleanor underscore the intersection of witchcraft and criminal justice, further complicating the narrative landscape. Thus, across these plays, witchcraft emerges as a nuanced subset of criminality, reflecting the intricate interplay between fate, agency, and moral culpability (Geng, 2021).

Measure for Measure: The Distorted Realm of Justice

In Measure for Measure, the question of who the real wrongdoers are becomes a major concern. The play presents the audience with plot elements -such as sexual harassment, executions, and friars eliciting confessions- that do not easily fit within the comedic genre, leaving audiences feeling conflicted. The heart of the matter lies in how the play deals with crime and punishment. The audience inevitably questions the way in which order is established, which is by sending to prison those who are deemed to be criminals by the law. The play provokes opposing reactions in the spectators when witnessing that not only criminals end up in prison, but also innocent people. On the flip side, some who escape legal punishment are still morally to be blamed. The failure of the relation between crime and justice thus stems from the divergence between law and morality (Leggatt, 1988).

The play’s ability to provoke discomfort among the audience is a matter of debate among critics. While some argue that this is a failure of the play to adhere to the comedic genre, others suggest that it serves a deliberate purpose, stimulating critical thinking. In contrast to prevailing opinions, Huston Diehl claims that the audience's unease is not indicative of the play's shortcomings, but rather a calculated strategy (Diehl, 1998). He explains that "Shakespeare deliberately calls attention to the imperfection of his art, and [… that] the inadequacy of the multiple substitutions is a crucial factor in Shakespeare’s conception of his drama, producing –not undermining– the play’s meaning as well as its peculiar power" (Diehl, 1998). The power of the play lies indeed in its ability to raise questions on responsibility. The audience is invited to reflect on the allocation of responsibility for the crimes depicted and to consider the intricate interplay between law and justice. Underneath the play’s imperfections is a liberating idea that allows the audience to ask probing questions regarding the fairness and moral underpinnings of punishments.

Figure 2: Measure for Measure. Discussion of sexual coercion. Barefoot. Directed by Jenny Grober.


One of the most ambiguous figures of the play is for example the deputy of the Duke of Vienna, Angelo. He is a multifaceted character whose actions blur the lines between pure evil and moral righteousness. Even his misleading name highlights the difficulty of reconciling law and justice. This internal conflict mirrors the ambiguity of his deeds: as the audience learns the laws in force triggering the actions of the play, they are confronted with Angelo's character. The events unfolding in the story, however, lead the audience to reconsider the relationship between these laws and their justness as well as to spot the irony behind the character’s angelic name (Hayne, 1993). Angelo himself draws parallels between the act of murder and the transgression committed by Claudio and Julia - engaging in extramarital sexual relations:

Ha! fie, these filthy vices! It were as good

To pardon him that hath from nature stolen

A man already made, as to remit

Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image

In stamps that are forbid: ‘tis all as easy

Falsely to take away a life true made

As to put metal in restrained means

To make a false one.

(II, 4, 1064-71)


Angelo asserts his authority by arbitrarily determining the severity of crimes and selecting who faces imprisonment and who escapes it. Moreover, he equates premarital sex with murder, evoking notions of deceitfulness. Claudio finds himself unjustly accused of blasphemy for counterfeiting images of God, a charge that results in his arrest as a fraudster. This unjust action prompts viewers to critically reassess the true culprit, shifting the focus of scrutiny from Claudio to Angelo, as the audience grapples with the moral ambiguity surrounding Angelo's decisions.

Macbeth: The Tragic Consequences of Weak Leadership

Another play that consistently prompts the audience to question what it witnesses is the tragedy of Macbeth. Much like Angelo in Measure for Measure, who is undeniably a criminal and a deeply troubled character grappling with the responsibilities of wielding power, Macbeth also finds himself thrust into a position of authority, inexperienced to take control over Scotland, but forced to do so due to Duncan's ineffective leadership.

In fact, Macbeth is not the only character whose actions are questioned in the play. Particularly problematic is Duncan's weak governance, which paves the way for Macbeth's ascent to power. Scholar Rebecca Lemon contends that "Duncan appears even more culpable, a king threatened by treason from within and rebellion from without [… that] rather than protecting his country, [he] himself requires protection” (Lemon, 2002). By holding Duncan accountable, Lemon challenges our interpretation of the play. She suggests that Macbeth is not the only flawed character; Duncan's vulnerability and reliance on protection contribute to the circumstances that drive Macbeth to commit his tragic deeds.

Duncan, therefore, bears a share of the responsibility. He failed to govern in a manner that could quell rebellion; his skills as king have faltered. Lemon implies that labelling Macbeth as merely a murderer or attributing his actions solely to Lady Macbeth's influence would be simplistic. Though Macbeth commits the deed, it is unclear where the ultimate responsibility lies and who the true criminal is. Shakespeare delves into the complexities of free will, determination, agency, action, and passivity, suggesting that active, deliberate actions are not the only criminal deeds (Wray, 2011).

Figure 4: Macbeth (Globe, 2013).

In Macbeth, the role of the witches introduces yet another layer to the exploration of criminality. Witchcraft, deemed criminal during that era, often led to accusations and condemnation. However, the play delves into the ambiguity surrounding the witches' influence. While they are accused of knowing the future, it is uncertain whether they merely foresee events or actively shape them. The pivotal question arises: if they are indeed criminals, is their offence merely in possessing knowledge of the future, or do they actively manipulate events through their predictions? In Act I, scene 3 the witches are firstly presented by Banquo who is prompted to speak as follows:

What are these,

So wither’d and wild in their attire,

That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,

And yet are on’t?... – Live you? Or are you aught

That man may question? You seem to understand me,

By each at once her choppy finger laying

Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.

(II, 3, 40-49)

The witches are depicted as eerie figures, with masculine features like a beard that blur the lines between genders. Their appearance is unsettling, leaving their true nature uncertain. With their long, slender fingers, sharp in a literal and figurative sense, have the task of pointing out. These witches, despite their ambiguous presence, hold a significant role - they foretell the future, revealing to Macbeth his fate: "Thou shalt get kings" (I, 3, 70). This act of pointing fingers mirrors the essence of Shakespearean criminal plays, in which it is not clear who to blame, and therefore who to point the finger to. The various laws at play within the tragedy yield divergent outcomes: legal statutes differ from moral principles, which, in turn, diverge from the enigmatic and unpredictable laws of magic.

Figure 5: The Weird Sisters. Engraving after Henry Fuseli (1785).

Henry VI part II,: The Struggle for Power and Control

In Henry VI, part II, when Henry the VI is crowned, he is also crawling to maturity: there is somebody almost in charge of the king and then Gloucester’s enemy asks to resign that place. The question here is exactly who has the power and control over the crown. This issue is finally thrown into chaos by the end of the play when Henry is forced to flee. Even though the name of the play suggests that it would revolve around Henry VI, the purpose of circling around the king could actually be to raise the question of who can take power off the king.

In Henry VI, part II, as Henry VI assumes the crown, he is also embarking on a journey towards maturity. Initially, there is a sense that someone else is guiding the king before Gloucester's enemy demands his resignation from that role. Henry is thus compelled to adopt that more mature role. The central question arises: who truly wields power and authority over the crown? This quandary reaches a climax by the play's conclusion when Henry is compelled to flee, throwing the issue into disarray. In Act I, Scene 3, there is a pivotal conversation revolving around the king. Though Henry is physically present on stage during the exchange, his presence is overshadowed, presenting a very absent king, underscoring the underlying tensions regarding authority and control:

QUEEN MARGARET Because the King, forsooth, will have it so.

GLOUCESTER Madam, the King is old enough himself / To give his censure. These are no women’s matters.

QUEEN MARGARET If he be old enough, what needs your Grace / To be Protector of his Excellence?

GLOUCESTER Madam, I am Protector of the realm, / And at his pleasure will resign my place.

SUFFOLK Resign it, then, and leave thine insolence. / Since thou wert king—as who is king but thou?

(I, 3, 116-24).


Figure 6: First Folio Contents Page: A Catalogue

In Henry VI, part II, Gloucester not only stands close to the king but also assumes the role of the king himself, as evident from his rhetorical question, "who is king but thou?" (I, 3, 124). Serving as the Lord Protector, Gloucester's authority mirrors that of the king, highlighting the complex dynamics within the royal court. This dialogue reveals underlying factionalism among courtiers, with Henry VI conspicuously silent amid the discussion. This ambiguity surrounding the control of the crown underscores a looming threat of civil unrest and eventual exile if the king fails to assert his authority over his court.

Then, she is forced to go into exile because of her witchcraft and she tries to warn her husband that enemies are gathering. But her husband, not seeing this, ends up murdered. This links back to the previous situation of the king, not being able to recognise the plotting of his court fails in his role. Concerning Eleanor’s conviction, instead, the criminality can be questioned: witchcraft was considered a crime, but the way it is framed here does not clearly show Eleanor as evil and as that who has been caught and discovered by the good ones. Instead, she is discovered because York has been plotting against Gloucester. The complication of the plots raises questions of who is responsible and links back to the role of the witches in Macbeth, whose deeds were also questioned as actively responsible and criminal or not.

Similarly echoing themes in Macbeth, witchcraft emerges as a significant element in Henry VI, part II, further complicating notions of criminality. Eleanor's involvement in staging a devil's apparition leads to her accusation and conviction for witchcraft. Subsequently, she is exiled, and she attempts to warn her husband of impending danger. However, her efforts are in vain as her husband falls victim to murder, exposing the court's inability to recognise internal threats. Eleanor's conviction raises doubts about the nature of her crime. It appears more as a result of York's machinations against Gloucester rather than her own malevolence. This intricate web of plots and counterplots prompts questions regarding responsibility and echoes the ambiguity surrounding the witches' role in Macbeth, blurring the lines between active criminality and mere manipulation (Geng, 2021).


In Shakespeare's diverse repertoire of comedy, tragedy and history, in the plays Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and Henry VI, part II, the exploration of criminality transcends genre boundaries, inviting audiences to ponder the elusive nature of guilt and responsibility. In Measure for Measure, the blurred lines between crime and punishment challenge societal norms, prompting reflection on the essence of justice. Macbeth delves into the consequences of weak leadership, sparking debates on the culpability of individuals amidst political turmoil. Witchcraft emerges as a provocative theme, provoking speculation on the true extent of supernatural influence. Finally, in Henry VI, part II, the power struggle within the royal court prompts a reassessment of authority and accountability. Eleanor's conviction questions the criminality of witchcraft. Through these works, Shakespeare navigates the complexities of criminality, urging audiences to confront the nuances of morality and law.

Bibliographical References

Diehl, Huston, “‘Infinite Space’: Representation and Reformation in Measure for Measure”, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 49, 1998.

Geng, Penelope "Communal Shaming and the Limitations of Legal Forms: Henry VI, Part 2 and Macbeth", in Communal Justice in Shakespeare, England: University of Toronto Press, 2021.

Hayne, Victoria, "Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure", Shakespeare Quarterly vol. 44, 1993, pp. 1-29. 

Leggatt, Alexander, "Substitution in Measure for Measure", Shakespeare Quarterly vol. 39, 1988, pp. 342-359 

Lemon, Rebecca, “Scaffolds of Treason in Macbeth”, Theatre Journal, vol. 54 no. 1, 2002, pp. 25-43. 


Shakespeare, William, Macbeth edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015.


Shakespeare, William, Measure for Measure edited by J.W. Lever, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018.


Shakespeare, William, 2 Henry VI edited by Michael Hattaway, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, 1991.

Wray, Ramona, "The Morals of Macbeth and Peace as Process: Adapting Shakespeare in Northern Ireland's Maximum-Security Prison", Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 62 no. 3, 2011, pp. 340-363.

Visual Sources


The parallels drawn between characters and situations that's not my neighbor from the play and those found in other Shakespearean works, such as Macbeth, add depth to your interpretation.


Rebecca Lemon's analysis provides a compelling and nuanced perspective on "Macbeth," highlighting the complexity of responsibility and culpability in the play by shedding light on Duncan's flawed leadership, which significantly contributes to the tragic events that unfold. Follow this: hill climb racing

Author Photo

Laura Contessi

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page