Rescued by an Ancient Arrow

Duke Vincentio, the cunning “philosopher-king” of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, reassures Friar Thomas that his motives for stealing away from prying public eyes are not basely amorous:

No, holy father; throw away that thought; believe not that the dribbling dart of love can pierce a complete bosom. Why I desire thee to give me secret harbor, hath a purpose more grave and wrinkled than the aims and ends of burning youth.

The good Duke, whose bosom is perhaps not yet so “complete” as he believes, is referring to the Platonic notion that a healthy soul (a “complete breast”) is capable of governing passion in accordance with reason.

The “dribbling dart of love” is the arrow of Cupid, symbolizing the power of passion to overwhelm the intellect and lead us pell-mell into actions we will come to regret.

Though the Duke is right to shield his heart from the poisonous arrows of unregulated passion, his description of higher ends as “grave and wrinkled” suggests that he has still to discover that true love aims at a “beauty ever ancient, ever new.”

That such Greater Love strikes with arrows of his own is brought vividly to our attention by this painting of Giovanni Baglione.

The work depicts a scene of what we might call benevolent violence.

The Devil (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Baglione’s rival Caravaggio) has been consorting with a Cupid-like figure, here designated under the title “Profane Love.”

This sinful intercourse is abruptly interrupted as Sacred Love, with wings and weapons of his own, steps in to cast the Devil aside, and rescue “burning youth” from his clutches.

Though his arrow is ancient and his motives are grave, there is nothing wrinkled in Love’s features, or dribbling about his dart!

Nor will the wound he inflicts deprive youth of his higher faculties. Rather, it will direct his mind’s eye to a Beauty in comparison to which all worldly pomps, being at odds with eternal salvation, appear to us as ugly as the Enemy himself.

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