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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Oil Paintings on Shakespearean Themes

Description of Painting - Oil on Canvas 20" x 32"
by Hannah Tompkins


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This painting confirms Shakespeare's observation on certain aspects of the social conditions the disparity between Law & Justice: Legality Morality and Vice & Virtue.

Love and Lust are the weights in this scale. The plot revolves around the so-called moral degeneration of the Viennese populace. Cohabitation without the benefit of legal sanction is condemned, yet universally practiced despite authoritative efforts to enforce its prohibition by law.

As Pompey, the Bawd declares, such a law would mean putting the whole world in prison, and so, in fact, it is! But Mistress Overdone, the Madam of a 'House' comments on the real immoralities:
"Thus, what with the wars, what with the sweat, what with the gallows and what with the poverty, I am custom-shrunk."
Society is divided into 'lawmakers' and 'law-breakers': the latter inhabit the underworld, the former, the over-world. Thus the canvas is divided horizontally through the globe, with its respective residents.

The roof of the world's prison serves as the Judges' bench, accommodating four furtive 'law-makers'. While the green judge is condemning Justice by the 'book', his pocket is being picked by his 'honorable' colleague. Such a judge is Angelo, the Duke's appointed surrogate, who says:
"Thieves for their robbery have authority when judges steal themselves."
Justice stands, in shame, accused of an obvious transgression, she is pregnant. PREGNANT, the dictionary says, is "fertile": "fruitful": "significant"; and is not Justice all of these despite the charge of illegality? It is the same charge for which Claudio is jailed and sentenced to death. Mistress Overdone announces:
"I saw him arrested and carried away...and within these three days his head to be chopped off, and it is for getting madam Julietta with child."
His relationship with Julietta is honorable and moral for they are truly in love, but illegitimate since the union was not performed according to law. Yet Angelo, who decrees the sentence, himself commits a parallel violation, motivated by lust. His position of power affords him the opportunity to advantage temptation, but after the deed he makes a self-confession:
"This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant, And dull to all proceedings. A deflower'd maid! And by an eminent body that enforced the law against it!"
The provost, however, is more sympathetic to Claudio's predicament:
"All sects, all ages smack of this vice; and he to die fort"
And Angelo, the absolute authority himself concedes:
"I not deny,
The jury passing on the prisoner's life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try,
What's open made to Justice
That justice seizes; what know the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves?
'Tis very pregnant.."
(my emphasis)
In front of Justice are the lovers, imprisoned for a true embrace, although forbidden.

In the center cell, devoid of bars, sits Pompey, the underworld philosopher, leaning on an hour-glass with a wise and patient smile.

To its inmates, the prison is a world, but to many on the outside, the world is a prison. It is Pompey who compares the prison to a house of ill-repute where people sell their honors in different ways.

The injustice is that petty offenders are punished relentlessly for crimes that some in the over-world are also guilty of but protected by their 'place' and 'form'.

In the lower left cell is Barnadine, incarcerated for 9 years and nobody knows exactly why. It's all very vague, and just as well, for it allows a margin for affectionate admiration for his resolute declaration of

His one dozen lines come through like an electric charge and leave no doubt about the stature of the man. He is too big for a prison cell. Though his body is restrained, his spirit is free. In stubborn defiance he challenges penal authorities in their attempts to be-head him. They are impotent in face of his indomitable resistence:
"I swear I will not die today for any man's persuasion".
The provost recognizes that he is:
"..fearless of what's past, present or to come, insensible of mortality and desperately mortal."
In the end, his unyielding assertion wins him physical freedom. As a 'Truth-Teller' he is at last free.

It is Isabella who says:
"..for truth is truth, to the end of reckoning."
And the truth is, that at the end of this municipal clean-up, personalities have not changed nor moralities altered; they have merely been legalized


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.


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