Measure for Measure

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Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. Students of Shakespeare’s works call these plays “problem plays” because the theme, subject matter and resolution of the plays does not allow them to be clearly classed as either comedies or tragedies. Some scholars also include other plays, such as Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and others, among the problem plays, because of the difficulties presented by certain characters (such as Malvolio or Shylock) or subplots which are present in those works.

Measure for Measure deals in a harsh way with the problem of sexual morality and governance in a Christian state. The title of the play is usually attributed to the New Testament, and is believed to refer either to the gospel of Matthew 7:1-3 or to the gospel of Mark 4:24. Other themes concern the weakness and corruption of individual men, and the difficulties of balancing the need of the law to protect the weak and innocent against the need for society to show mercy to wrongdoers.

Measure for Measure is a deeply disturbing play, and remains among Shakespeare’s most controversial. The theme of the difficulty of tempering justice with mercy has maintained the play’s relevance. However, much of the tension in the play reflects the conflict between Catholic and Evangelical or Puritan factions during the English Reformation in Shakespeare’s own time.


The ruler of the city of Vienna, Duke Vicentio, has decided to go on a journey. Vicentio announces that while he is away, his place will be filled by two courtiers, the aged counselor Escalus and the young Angelo. Angelo has the reputation of being both morally upright and zealous, and Vicentio entrusts him with the full authority of the Duke himself, but appoints Escalus to advise him. The Duke then goes to a monastery, where he disguises himself as a monk in order to sneak back into Vienna and secretly observe Angelo’s performance. Vicentio explains to a friar of the monastery the reason for this ruse: although Vienna has very harsh laws, the Duke has always been a man of mercy, and as a result, the criminals have become scofflaws, and crime has run out of control. The Duke believes that if he was to start enforcing the laws himself, the public would feel that he had become a tyrant, and so he intends to let the strict Angelo put the law into action. Vicentio also expresses an interest in seeing if political power corrupts the seemingly moral Angelo.

Back in Vienna, Angelo does indeed begin to enforce the law. He has the brothels pulled down, and takes pimps and their customers and other criminals into custody. Among those arrested is Claudio, a young man who got his fiancée pregnant. Angelo sentences Claudio to death for this offence. Claudio sends his friend Lucio, a “rake” or playboy, to take a message to Claudio’s sister Isabella, asking for her help. Isabella is a novice (or nun in training), in an order so strict that once she takes her final vows she will be forbidden to speak to a man unsupervised, and even then subject to a rule that if she speaks to a man she must hide her face, and that if she shows her face, she must not speak. Isabella obtains permission to go to court to plead for her brother’s life.

At court, Angelo is at first unwilling to help Isabella. But before long, he displays a sexual obsession with her, an obsession he realises is perverse, and which he speculates is based upon her very devotion to God: “Having waste ground enough, Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary and pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie! What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? Dost thou desire her foully for those things that make her good?” (Act II, scene 2). Eventually, Angelo offers Isabella a deal: if she will submit to him sexually, Angelo will pardon her brother. Isabella is appalled by this offer, and refuses. She then visits Claudio in prison, to explain that he must die because she has refused this arrangement. But to Isabella’s horrified disappointment, Claudio tells her that she should accept the offer and save his life.

Duke Vicentio, disguised in a monk’s robe and cowl, has been carefully observing these events. Posing as a confessor in the prison, he then engages the assistance of Isabella in a scheme to save Claudio’s life. Vicentio knows that Angelo was engaged to a virtuous woman, Mariana, but when Mariana lost her dowry and fortune, Angelo falsely accused her of infidelity and jilted her. Vicentio directs Isabella to agree to Angelo’s sexual demands, but only on condition that Angelo should meet her in a dark garden in the middle of the night. Vicentio then goes to Mariana, and advises her to disguise herself as Isabella, and meet Angelo in the garden. Angelo then has sex with Mariana, believing that she is Isabella.

Vicentio stations himself in the prison, where he awaits Claudio’s pardon. To the Duke’s shock, however, Angelo does not pardon Claudio. Believing that he is now subject to blackmail by Isabella based on the sex he mistakenly believes he had with her, Angelo has decided to execute Claudio, knowing that no one will believe the accusations of a woman whose brother he has killed, since people will suspect Isabella of accusing him falsely as an act of revenge. Vicentio enlists the help of the prison Provost, and they disguise the head of a different prisoner, who has died of natural causes, to look like Claudio’s. This head is sent to Angelo as proof of Claudio’s death.

In the final scene, the Duke returns to Vienna. Gradually all is revealed: that Angelo sought to corrupt Isabella, that he actually had sex with his own jilted fiancée instead, that Claudio is actually alive, and that the mysterious friar was actually Duke Vicentio in disguise. Claudio is pardoned, Angelo is condemned to death (using his own measure, as in the title) but is later pardoned based on the pleadings of both Mariana and Isabella, and the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. In one of the most famous disconnects between the word and the action in Shakespeare, the script does not say whether or how Isabella reacts to the Duke’s proposal, which has allowed a wide variety of stage interpretations of the end of the play.

The play also has a number of minor comic characters of a notably dark variety, including the pimp Pompey, the prostitute Mistress Overdone, the sleazy playboy Lucio, and a grim executioner, as well as Constanble Elbow, an incompetent policeman.

External links

Open Source Shakespeare - Measure for Measure [1]