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Quotations about Liberty and Power

About this Quotation:

The theme of the corrupting influence which power has on those who wield it is a common one in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare has a most Actonian sensitivity for the myriad ways in which this corruption can manifest itself. In this passage we see Angelo, a “pelting, petty officer” who enjoys “a little authority” while the true master is away, by enforcing a long unused law to remove a man whom he dislikes. He is justly rebuked by his sister Isabella who denounces the petty tyrant by wittily exclaiming “O! it is excellent To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant.”

Other quotes about Literature & Music:

16 October, 2006

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In Measure for Measure Shakespeare has Isabella denounce the Duke’s deputy for being corrupted by power, “it is excellent To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant” (1623)

Read the full quote in context here.

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare shows how those in power can easily become corrupted. The Duke appoints Angelo as his deputy while he is absent. Angelo decides to enforce the letter of the law and condemns Claudio to death for a crime which has not been enforced for a long time. His sister Isabella pleads for his life. Angelo accepts her plea in return for sexual favors but double-crosses her by ordering Claudio’s execution anyway. In pleading for her brother’s liife Isabella accuses Angelo of many things:

So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he that suffers. O! it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Ang.

The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept:
Those many had not dar’d to do that evil,
If that the first that did th’ edict infringe
Had answer’d for his deed: now ’tis awake,
Takes note of what is done, and, like a prophet,
Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils,
Either new, or by remissness new-conceiv’d,
And so in progress to be hatch’d and born,
Are now to have no successive degrees,
But, ere they live, to end.

Isab.

Yet show some pity.

Ang.

I show it most of all when I show justice;
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismiss’d offence would after gall,
And do him right, that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied:
Your brother dies to-morrow: be content.

Isab.

So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he that suffers. O! it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

Lucio.

[Aside to Isab.] That’s well said.

Isab.

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder; nothing but thunder.
Merciful heaven!
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

[More works by William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)]