Measure for Measure

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Character overview; Plot summary
Pages: 39
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 469

Measure for Measure


The first record of performance indicates that Measure for Measure was acted before King James I on December 26, 1604, in the banqueting hall at Whitehall, by Shakespeare's acting company, the King's Men, referred to in the Revels Account as "his Maiesties plaiers." In the account, authorship of the play is attributed to "Shaxberd." The play was not published until 1623 when it was included in the First Folio, the commemorative volume of his collected plays issued by John Hemminges and Henry Conddell two fellow members of Shakespeare's acting company. The play was probably set from a copy of Shakespeare's own manuscript made by Ralph Crane, scrivener, or secretary-copyist for the King's Men.

The incidents in the story recounted in Measure for Measure are thought to be taken from what might have been an actual historical event. Joseph Macarius, a Hungarian student living in Vienna in the sixteenth century, tells in a letter written to an acquaintance, the story of a wife who submitted to the demands of an Italian magistrate in return for his promise to spare her husband, who was charged with murder. The magistrate, having failed to keep his promise and, having executed her husband nonetheless, the wife complained to the duke, Don Ferdinando de Gonzago. The duke ordered the magistrate to give the widow a dowry and to marry her. That being done, the magistrate was executed.

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In 1556, using this incident, Claude Rouillet wrote a bloody, Senecan tragedy, in Latin, called Philanira, which was translated into French in 1563. Three years later, Giraldi Cinthio turned the play into a novella, which he included in his collection of tales called the Hecathommithi. Cinthio also used it as the basis for a play, Epitia, published posthumously in 1583. Cinthio's account was the basis for a play written in English by George Whetstone, in 1578, called Promos and Cassandra, which, along with Whetstone's prose version of this story which appeared in his Heptameron of Civil Discourses (1582), probably served as the chief source for Shakespeare in the composition of Measure for Measure.

Measure for Measure has often troubled critics either because of what seemed like its strange, hybrid structure or because of its often disturbing theme of the conflict between sexual license and sexual puritanism. Audiences, during the eighteenth century, apparently were not similarly put off by the play. Despite adaptations like Sir William Davenant's The Law against Lovers (1673), and Charles Gildon's 1700 adaptation, David Stevenson reports in The Achievement of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" that the play was staged forty-six times between 1720 and 1800. In the Victorian era, the play nearly vanished from the London stage, largely because of its content. In the twentieth-century, Measure for Measure became classified, along with All's Well That Ends Well, with which it shares the bed trick, the surreptitious substitution of one woman for another in a guilty assignation, and Troilus and Cressida as a "dark comedy" or "problem play." By the end of the twentieth century, however, Measure for Measure had become a favorite among Shakespeare's plays and one that was frequently staged.


Act 1, Scene 1

Measure for Measure opens with Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, announcing to Angelo and Escalus that he must leave the city and that in his place he is appointing Angelo his deputy and Escalus, Angelo's second. Escalus is the more learned in the law but Angelo is reputed for his virtue. Angelo protests that he ought to be put to a test before being given such great responsibility, but the duke assures him that he has chosen him for the office after careful consideration and leaves him with the charge to enforce the laws of the city according to his wisdom. Angelo offers to see the duke a little on his way out of the city. The duke demurs, saying he must leave hastily and does not wish to be seen by the people. After they wish him farewell and he leaves, Angelo and Escalus agree to meet and determine just what is the extent of their powers.

Act 1, Scene 2

Lucio and two Gentlemen are lounging in a public square discussing politics, the possibility of war with Hungary, and trading barbed insults and sexual innuendos. Mistress Overdone, a brothel keeper, enters and informs them that Claudio has been arrested at Angelo's orders for getting Julietta pregnant. Lucio fears that what she says is true because he was supposed to meet Claudio two hours ago and Claudio has not shown up. Lucio leaves to find out what has happened. As Mistress Overdone is complaining about how bad business is, her servant, Pompey, enters repeating her news that Claudio is being taken to prison for getting Julietta pregnant. Following in that vein, Pompey asks her if she has not heard the new proclamation ordering the closing of all the brothels. Mistress Overdone is alarmed because she will be put out of business. Pompey advises her not to worry, that she will always have customers and he will help procure them for her under the guise of a tapster working in what she can present as an ale-house.

As they are speaking, they see Claudio being led through the street by the provost, on his way to prison, followed by Julietta. The provost explains to Claudio that Angelo has ordered this public display of their shame. Lucio is also with them and Claudio explains to him that he and Julietta are legally contracted to marry and that all but the final ceremonies had taken place because they have been waiting to make arrangements with Julietta's relatives regarding the amount of her dowry. Angelo has revived old laws that have for years lain dormant and used them to prosecute Claudio. Moreover, Angelo has rejected Claudio's appeals for clemency. There is one last hope, Claudio tells Lucio. His sister, Isabella, is about to enter a convent. Claudio implores Lucio to acquaint her with the news of his imprisonment and forthcoming execution and to persuade her to petition Angelo for mercy. Lucio agrees to see her, and Claudio is led off to prison.

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Act 1, Scene 3

The duke confides to Friar Thomas that he wishes him to shelter him in secret, not because he is carrying out a secret amour but because he has turned his power over to Angelo and let it be known that he has gone to Poland. He explains to Friar Thomas that he has let a number of strict laws go unenforced over the past fourteen years and, consequently, Vienna has become morally corrupt. However, he fears that if he himself were to reinstitute them, it would seem too much like capricious tyranny, since it was he who, by neglecting to enforce the laws, has given the people permission in their moral laxity. Therefore he has deputed Angelo to use his power, yet he will be protecting his own good reputation among the people. Now Duke Vincentio wishes to disguise himself as a friar and go among the people to see the effects of Angelo's use of power and also to see how Angelo uses power and what effect the command of power has on Angelo. Vincentio's final words to Friar Thomas suggest that everything he has said to him up until then was only a pretext for something he is not saying. He ends by pointing out that Angelo is reputed for his purity, that he has a stern and icy bearing and seems to be the highest model of absolute virtue. Vincentio says he wishes to "see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be," if Angelo truly is what he seems to be.

Act 1, Scene 4

Inside a convent, Isabella is preparing to enter into her novitiate and is inquiring of a nun about the restrictions to be imposed, suggesting that she wishes to submit herself to the strictest possible discipline. Their conference is interrupted by Lucio's shouts from outside the walls of the convent. Francisca, the nun with whom Isabella has been speaking, informs her that she [Francisca] is forbidden to speak with men except in the presence of the Prioress and asks Isabella to see what the man's business is while she withdraws.

Lucio enters the convent with the same gaiety, flirtatiousness, and irreverence of spirit that he displays in all situations, addressing the nun playfully and speaking suggestively. He asks to see Isabella regarding her "unhappy brother." She tells him she is Isabella and asks why Claudio is unhappy. Lucio tells her he has been taken to prison for getting Julietta with child. She thinks he is mocking her, but when he
Title page of Measure for Measure from the First Folio (1623) Title page of Measure for Measure from the First Folio (1623) (By permission of The Folger Shakespeare Library) repeats the story, she asks why Claudio does not marry Julietta. Lucio explains that Angelo has been deputized, will not permit the marriage, but instead insists on Claudio's execution. The only hope, he tells her is for her to go to Angelo herself and plead for her brother's life. Isabella promises to notify the Mother Superior of her business and to go to Angelo immediately.

Act 2, Scene 1

Discussing Claudio's case, Escalus attempts to reason with Angelo and convince him to show mercy, first arguing that Claudio's father was a good man of the nobility, and then asking Angelo if he could not think of a situation in which he himself might not have been tempted to act as Claudio had. Angelo responds that it is one thing to be tempted, quite another to fall, Page 472  |  Top of Articlethat just because a juror or judge has faults does not mean that the juror or judge cannot pass judgment on one caught at fault. Finally, Angelo asserts that should he, one day, be guilty as Claudio is, then he too ought to be condemned to die. Escalus, although not in agreement, makes no further objection. The provost enters. Angelo orders the beheading of Claudio "by nine tomorrow morning."

There is a swift shift in tone from serious to comic as Elbow, a constable, directs some officers to bring Pompey and Froth before the magistrates. The issue is not entirely clear, especially since Elbow "misplaces," using the word "respected," for example, when he means to say suspected, and Pompey is a fast-talking con artist. Essentially, however, Elbow brings Pompey before the magistrates accusing him of being a bawd and working in a brothel, which seems to be doing business as a bath house. In irritation, Angelo leaves the adjudication to Escalus. Escalus releases Pompey for lack of evidence, with a warning not to appear again before him and suggests that Elbow has been too long in office and asks him to bring him the names of some of his neighbors who might take over his job. Escalus then invites a fellow justice home to dinner with him, expressing his regrets regarding Claudio's execution and lamenting that "there is no remedy."

Act 2, Scene 2

The provost, pitying Claudio and regretting that he will be executed for a simple human failing, visits Angelo at home in the evening inquiring once again if he ought to go through with the execution and advising him that sometimes, afterwards, one has regrets for having passed a severe sentence when it is too late to change it. Angelo is irritated with him, saying he has already given the order for the death and that if the provost is uncomfortable carrying them out, he is welcome to resign his office and spare himself. The provost apologizes and asks what ought to be done with Julietta in her present condition. Angelo orders her removed to a fitting place for her lying in, saying, "Let her have needful, but not lavish means." A servant announces that Claudio's sister has come to see Angelo.

Isabella enters, accompanied by Lucio, and explains to Angelo that she is torn because while she wishes to ask for mercy for her brother, she deeply condemns his fault and begs Angelo to condemn his fault but to spare him. Angelo responds that the fault has already been condemned, and that it would be absurd to condemn a fault but pardon the man who committed it. Isabella agrees that, severe though it is, the law is just, and prepares to withdraw. Lucio, however, whispers to her that she is "too cold," not to give up, and to try again. She does and engages Angelo with strong arguments about mercy, power, authority, the redemption Jesus offered mankind, whose lives had been forfeited through sin, by the sacrifice of his own life, and even asks Angelo to consider if he can find in himself any fault similar to her brother's. To himself, Angelo says that as Isabella speaks he is almost convinced by her and that he is aroused to desire her. But he turns away from her to leave, and she asks him to turn back. He tells her he will think about what she has said and asks her to return tomorrow. She says she will tell him how she will bribe him. He becomes severe, but she catches him by saying she will bribe him not with gold, etc., but with prayers to heaven. He tells her again to come back tomorrow. As she leaves she offers a standard farewell, "Save your honor." When she and Lucio and the provost are gone, in a soliloquy Angelo says, "From thee, even from thy virtue," suggesting what will become central—that he lusts for her.

Act 2, Scene 3

Visiting the prison in his disguise as a friar, Duke Vincentio meets Julietta and questions her. She says she repents her action, bears her shame patiently, loves Claudio, and is as culpable in the act for which he will be executed as he is.

Act 2, Scene 4

Angelo appears, distraught, complaining that he is unable to pray and can only think lustfully of Isabella. A servant announces her and he receives her. Innocently, she says, "I am come to know your pleasure," which as it applies to Angelo's tormented musings has a secondary meaning she does not intend. He tells her Claudio must die. But then he equivocates and suggests that, although Claudio must die, it may be only in the way that everyone must die, but not immediately. Through a series of twists and turns Angelo finally tells Isabella that he loves her and that if she yields her body to his pleasure, he will release her brother from his sentence. Astonished, Isabella retorts that she will proclaim Angelo publicly for this outrage. He Page 473  |  Top of Articleassures her that no one will believe her. Her word against his will seem like the trick of a hysterical woman slandering a just judge. His lie, he asserts, will have more weight than her truth. As he leaves her, he tells her to return tomorrow to give him her answer. Alone, she despairs, realizing that it is true: she has no one to tell what has happened. She decides she must live chaste and Claudio must die, that her chastity is more precious than his life.

Act 3, Scene 1

The duke, in his role as the friar, visits Claudio in prison to offer consolation and prepare him for death. In his famous speech, "Be absolute for death," the duke/Friar enumerates the reasons that life is a contemptible thing. When he finishes, Claudio thanks him saying that he sees that life only makes him wish for death and that it is in death that he will find life. Isabella now comes to visit her brother in the prison, and the duke/Friar takes his leave of Claudio. As Isabella begins to speak with Claudio, the duke asks the provost to conceal him in a place where he may overhear their conversation.

Claudio asks Isabella what comfort she brings. She tells him she brings the comfort of heaven, for that is where Angelo intends to send him. He asks if there is nothing to be done. She tells him there is one chance of life for him. When he shows eagerness to know what it is, she says she is fearful that his desire for life may overwhelm his ability to condemn the cost. He says that if he must die, he will. She says with joy she hears their dead father's voice in his virtue and tells him then that Angelo will let her brother live if she surrenders her virginity to him. He is shocked and says, "Thou shalt not do't." She says if it were her life, she would sacrifice that without thought for him and she tells him to be ready for death tomorrow. Then Claudio begins to think: first, how terrible that Angelo would do the thing he sets the law against Claudio for having done! And then he wonders whether it is so terrible a sin if Angelo himself is willing to perform it. And then he cries to Isabella that "Death is a fearful thing." She responds that a life of shame is a fearful thing. But he reminds her of the terrors and torments of death and suggests that the worst of life is better than death and begs her to let him live, that a sin performed for charity's sake will become a virtue.

Isabella responds fiercely to him, calls him a beast, a "faithless coward," a man who would take his life from his sister's shame. She wonders if her mother had not betrayed her father at his conception and assures Claudio she will only pray for his death, that she would not make the slightest effort to save his life. He begs her to hear him, but she rages against him. The duke in his friar's robe at this moment steps forward from his hiding place and tells Isabella he wishes to speak with her. She steps aside and waits for him as he says a few words to Claudio outside of her hearing. Angelo, he tells Claudio, never meant what he said, was only testing Isabella's virtue, and Claudio must remain steadfast for death. Claudio says he wishes to beg Isabella's pardon, that he is "out of love with life," and wishes only for death. The duke then asks the provost to leave him alone with Isabella, that they may talk privately.

Alone with her, the duke commends her virtue and tells her that it is her virtue gives value to her beauty. He tells her, too, that he has heard what she told Claudio about Angelo and asks her what she intends to do. She repeats that she will resist Angelo and let Claudio die. She also says that the duke ought to be informed about his deputy and that if the duke returns she will tell him of his perfidy. Although that is the right thing to do, the duke agrees, he warns her it will be ineffective, that Angelo will deny her accusation and say he was only testing her. But Vincentio tells her there is a way she can remedy the situation and do a good deed for "a poor wronged lady," save her brother, and do herself no dishonor. Isabella asks him to tell her more and assures him she is ready to do anything as long as it "appears not foul in the truth of my spirit."

The duke now proceeds to tell Isabella Angelo's story. It reveals him to be quite different from how he seemed at the start of the play and it shows that the duke's purpose was more focused when he left Vienna and put Angelo in charge than the audience was apprised of at the play's inception. His purpose, however, was hinted at when he spoke of finding out what "seemers be." The duke tells Isabella that Angelo had been contracted to a woman named Mariana by the same sort of legal contract that bound Claudio and Julietta. Before the final ceremony was performed, Mariana's brother was drowned at sea when the ship carrying his fortune, and her dowry, sank. In consequence, since she could bring no Page 474  |  Top of Articledowry with her, Angelo abandoned Mariana and proclaimed his reason to be that he had found out dishonorable things about her. Despite his bad treatment of her, Mariana continued to love him.

Moved by this tale of Angelo's perfidy, Isabella asks the friar what relation it has to her situation. He explains that she may save her brother if she tells Angelo she will consent to give herself to him sexually, but it must be in a place where she designates, in total darkness, only for a brief span of time, and with no words spoken. Mariana, however, he explains, will be substituted for Isabella. Consequently, Claudio will be saved, Isabella's chastity will not be violated, and, should the assignation become publicly known in the future, Mariana may gain advantage, for then Angelo will be compelled to marry her. Isabella agrees to the plan enthusiastically.

Act 3, Scene 2

Upon leaving the prison, Vincentio comes upon Elbow once more leading Pompey before Angelo for being a bawd and a thief. The duke in his role as the friar castigates Pompey for the vileness of his profession. At the approach of Lucio, Pompey takes heart, hoping Lucio will be able to provide his bail, but Lucio only taunts and teases him and refuses to help him. As Pompey is being led away, Lucio notices the friar, greets him and asks him if he has any news from abroad and especially, if he has heard anything of the duke. Vincentio, saying he has none, turns the question back on Lucio. Lucio, who has already shown himself to enjoy a fanciful use of language and to delight in wild improvisations that are careless of the truth and full of sexual innuendo, says he has heard the duke is with the Emperor of Russia or in Rome. Vincentio says, with equivocation, that wherever the duke is he wishes him well. Lucio then begins a fanciful account of the duke's personality. Contrasting it with Angelo's iciness, he describes the duke as a madcap lecher who savored immorality. The duke in his role of Friar protests that Lucio speaks falsely of the duke, but Lucio assures him that he knew the duke well and speaks truth of him. The duke asks Lucio his name and asks him to be prepared publicly to defend what he has said when the duke returns. Lucio boasts that he has no fear of doing so and repeats before he leaves the friar that the duke was a man of loose morals and certainly rather than punishing Claudio would delight in his pleasure.

As the duke meditates on the power of slander that even a king cannot defeat, Escalus and the provost pass him as they take Mistress Overdone to prison for keeping a bawdy house. Mistress Overdone complains that she is being framed, that Lucio informed on her while she has kept his secret—that he had a child with Kate Keepdown while the duke was still governing Vienna and has reneged on his promise to marry her. Escalus acknowledges that Lucio is known for his licentiousness and orders that he be brought before him. He also informs the provost that Angelo will not be shaken in his judgment against Claudio and that the provost see, therefore, that Claudio be made ready for death.

Escalus, having finished his business, greets the friar as he is leaving, and asks him where he comes from. Vincentio says he has come from Rome. Escalus asks him what news he brings and Vincentio tells him that vice is rampant in the world and that there is a scarcity of truth. He asks Escalus what kind of man the duke was. Escalus paints a picture quite contrary to Lucio's, describing the duke as virtuous, generous, and temperate. They then speak of Claudio. Escalus once again regrets that he cannot persuade Angelo to temper his justice with mercy. Vincentio reports that he has given Claudio spiritual guidance in preparation for death. Escalus leaves the friar and goes to visit Claudio.

The third act ends with Vincentio alone. He speaks a soliloquy in which Shakespeare alters the verse to rhymed couplets; when the actors speak in verse in the rest of this play, they are speaking in blank verse, which is called that because it does not rhyme although it has meter. This change in verse signals a strong conclusion to the first part of the play and prepares audiences and readers for the change in tone, from intractably tragic to providentially comic, which is about to take place. Vincentio says that those who would represent justice must be virtuous, not merely severe. He denounces Angelo for ignoring his own offenses when judging Claudio's; Vincentio explains that he will meet vice with craft, and he reviews the plot of substituting Mariana for Isabella—the bed trick, which he will use later that night.

Act 4, Scene 1

As the last scene of the third act has ended with rhymed couplets, so the first scene of the fourth begins with a song sung by a newly introduced Page 475  |  Top of Articlecharacter, Mariana, the woman whom Angelo has wronged. The song, in six lines, tells of her unhappy love for Angelo. It ends with a wish for a return of kisses and with a lament for a love sealed in vain. The duke enters, still disguised as a friar. She excuses herself for singing, saying it is not for mirth but to console her sadness. He tells her it is not amiss even though the power of music is such that it can make bad seem good. But his purpose for his visit is to know if anyone has come to her seeking him. No, she answers. But someone soon will, he tells her, and asks her to leave him for awhile, for he has something in mind that will be for her good and he will summon her to return soon. She leaves. Isabella enters. She tells him Angelo has agreed to meet her in his garden, shown her the way to it, and given her the keys to its several gates. The duke then calls for Mariana, introduces Isabella to Mariana, and tells her to walk apart with her so that Isabella can tell her of his plan, which he assures her does not compromise her virtue. Mariana agrees to the plan, and the duke reassures her, explaining that by the pre-contract, the legal betrothal agreement (the same as the one Claudio and Julietta had signed) Angelo is her husband and to engage in sexual intercourse with him is not a sin.

Act 4, Scene 2

In the prison, the provost makes Pompey, incarcerated for being a bawd, assistant to Abhorson, the executioner, telling him that Claudio and Barnardine, a convicted murderer, are both to be executed that day. But when he summons the prisoners, only Claudio presents himself, reporting that Barnardine is deep in peaceful slumber. There is a knocking at the prison gates and the duke, still disguised as a friar, enters inquiring if Isabella or a messenger has come to the prison. When the answer is negative, he assures the provost that a messenger will be arriving soon. The duke then asks directly if there has not been an order countermanding Claudio's execution, and when the provost says there has not been, the duke assures him it will come. Just then there is knocking at the gate. A message arrives from Angelo. The duke presumes it is an order to spare Claudio and, mistakenly, apostrophizes about the irony of how vice in authority makes authority merciful. It is a command, however, to proceed with Claudio's execution that morning and have his head sent to Angelo. In the same message Angelo orders the execution of Barnardine later in the day.

Questioning the provost, the duke learns that Barnardine has been imprisoned nine years on a murder charge which has only been conclusively proven since the duke's departure and to which Barnardine has confessed. Barnardine, however, is unprepared for death, gets drunk every day and, even when given the opportunity, has not attempted to escape the prison. Learning of this, the duke asks the provost if he will postpone the execution of Claudio, execute Barnardine and send Angelo his head in place of Claudio's. When the provost hesitates, not because he is unsympathetic to Claudio, but because of his fear of disobeying Angelo, his superior, the friar shows him letters with the duke's seal and in the duke's handwriting, which the provost recognizes. The friar tells the provost that the duke will be returning in a few days, unbeknownst to Angelo, who received letters from the duke, which informed him he would not be back and perhaps was entering a monastery. The friar assures the provost all will be well and goes to Barnardine to prepare him for death.

Act 4, Scene 3

Pompey begins the scene with a comical account of all the small time crooks he recognizes in the prison. Abhorson, the executioner, enters and orders him to bring in Barnardine for beheading. Barnardine, annoyed by their yelling, curses at them and tells them to go away, that he is sleepy. Pompey tells him he can sleep after he is executed. The duke as Friar comes to attend his death, but Barnardine says he's been drinking and he simply will not consent to die today and that's that—he'll be in his cell if they have anything more to say to him. The duke says that he's fit neither to live nor to die. To execute him while his soul is so unprepared, the duke tells the provost, would be a damnable act on their part. The provost tells him of another prisoner, Ragozine, a pirate, the same age as Claudio, who has just died that morning in the prison. He suggests they send his head to Angelo instead of Claudio's. The duke approves, saying it is an accident provided by heaven. The duke then writes a letter to Angelo, which he gives to the provost to deliver. In it he informs him that he will be returning to the city, that he wants his entrance to be public, and that he wishes Angelo to meet him at a fountain a little way from the city.

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As the provost leaves, Isabella enters the prison. The duke in an aside says he will keep her ignorant of what has happened so that he can bring her comfort from her despair. He tells her that Claudio has been executed. She is furious and says she will pluck out Angelo's eyes. The duke advises her to be calm and patient, that the duke will be back in Vienna tomorrow and she may present her case to him. Meanwhile, he gives her a letter to give to Friar Peter, asking Peter to meet him at Mariana's house that evening, where he will tell him of Isabella and Mariana, and arrange for him to bring them before the duke when he enters the city. He himself, he says, because of a vow, must be absent.

Lucio meets them in the prison. He expresses his sadness at Claudio's death, yet his language is too light for the occasion. He calls Isabella "pretty Isabella," and says if the "fantastical Duke of dark corners" had been in Vienna, Claudio would not have been executed. Isabella departs, but the duke, as the friar, tells Lucio that the duke would not appreciate being described as he has described him. Lucio persists, says the friar does not know the duke as well as he does, that the duke is a ladies man. The duke advises him that he will have to "answer this one day," and bids him farewell, but Lucio says he will accompany him saying he can tell him stories about the duke. The duke tells him he has said too much already, but Lucio continues. He tells the friar that he was once brought before the duke for getting a prostitute pregnant, that in fact, it was true although he denied it because he would have been forced to marry her.

Act 4, Scene 4

Escalus and Angelo are reviewing the letters they have received from the duke and express concern about how erratic his behavior appears. Essentially, the duke commands them to meet him at the city gates and proclaim an hour before he enters that if any subjects have complaints or grievances for which they wish redress, they should come forward then in the street. They arrange to carry out his orders, and Escalus says good night. Alone, Angelo expresses his torment over what he has done, especially the anxiety that he will be discovered. He also feels guilty about Claudio's death but reasons that, had he lived, Claudio might have taken revenge on him.

Act 4, Scene 5

The duke appears as himself, gives Friar Peter various letters to deliver and reviews what they will do when he enters the city.

Act 4, Scene 6

Isabella and Mariana at the city gates are going over what they will say and imagining what Angelo will counter with. Friar Peter arrives and takes them to a place to stand as the trumpets sound and the duke begins his entrance into the city.

Act 5, Scene 1

With ceremony and celebration, the duke returns, giving especial welcome to Angelo and praising his virtue in oratorical phrases until Isabella rushes towards him crying out for justice. The duke asks her to speak and, as if assuring her, points to Angelo and says that he will give her justice. She begs the duke to hear her himself, for to ask Angelo for justice is like seeking redemption from the Devil. Angelo interrupts and says that Isabella is crazy, out of her mind because her brother has been executed in the course of carrying out justice. He says she will speak bitterly and strangely. She says indeed she will say strange things but true things, that Angelo is a liar, a murderer, an adulterer, a hypocrite, and a violator of virgins. The duke, after hearing her orders her taken away saying she is deranged. But she begs with eloquence, and the duke says, although she must be mad, nevertheless, her speech is coherent. He asks her to tell her story.

She begins to tell of Claudio and how Lucio came to her in the convent. Lucio interrupts her and introduces himself. The duke tells him he was not bid to speak. Lucio retorts that he did not wish to remain silent. The duke silences him. Throughout the scene, Lucio will interject himself and the duke will silence him until he chooses to deal with him regarding his own case of getting the prostitute Kate Keepdown with child. Isabella continues to tell her story as Angelo thinks it happened, not the plot that the friar concocted. The duke dismisses her charge, suggesting that she has been set up by people wishing to slander Angelo, arguing particularly that Angelo would never do something for which he would punish someone else. Isabella despairs of relief and starts to leave, but the duke stops her and orders her taken to prison on charges of slander. He asks her who knew she would come Page 477  |  Top of Articlebefore him to make these charges. She answers Friar Lodowick (the duke in the guise of the friar). The duke asks if any of the assembled know Lodowick. Lucio responds that he does and says that Lodowick had spoken to him against the duke, which is, of course, precisely the opposite of what had occurred. Lucio had spoken against the duke to the friar. The duke orders the friar be found and brought before him.

At this point in the proceedings, Friar Peter interrupts, saying he has stood by to listen to Isabella accuse Angelo falsely, since he did not touch her. The duke says it is just as he thought. He asks Peter if he knows Lodowick and Peter answers he does and that Lodowick is not at all as Lucio reports but a holy man. Peter says, in addition, that he has come in place of Lodowick who is ill, to tell what Lodowick told him. Isabella is removed by guards and Mariana is brought in. She is veiled and her face is hidden. The duke demands she show her face, but she says she will only show it when her husband asks her to. When he asks her if she is married, however, she says she is not, nor is she a maid, nor a widow. She offers a riddle that she is not married but she has had sexual intercourse with her husband but her husband does not know that he has had sexual intercourse with her. The duke asks how she is a witness in defense of Angelo against Isabella's accusation. Mariana says she is such a witness because Angelo thinks he never had sexual intercourse with her but knows he thinks that he did have sexual intercourse with Isabella. Saying that her accusation is strange, Angelo demands to see her face. Now, Mariana says, that her husband bids her to, she removes her veil, proclaims herself, and recounts the history of their contract and his betrayal. The duke asks Angelo if he knows her. Angelo confesses that he does and that there had been some possibility of marriage five years before but that he broke it off in part because the dowry fell short of what had been promised but more because he found her character faulty. Mariana then proclaims that Angelo has known her as his wife, in other words has had sexual intercourse with her. Angelo then asserts that this is becoming too much and asks the duke's permission to deal with Isabella and Mariana. Vincentio gives his blessing to Angelo's inquiry and recommends he punish the women severely. He appoints Escalus to sit as judge with Angelo, sends the provost to find Friar Lodowick, and, excusing himself, leaves them to sit in judgment.

Escalus and Angelo recall Isabella as they await Lodowick's appearance, and they order Lucio to remain in their presence so that he can testify against Lodowick when the friar does appear. As they discuss the case, Lucio continuously interjects scurrilous jokes based on double entendres. The duke, once again disguised as a friar, the provost and Isabella reenter. Escalus asks the friar if he connived to have Mariana and Isabella testify falsely against Angelo. He denies it. Escalus asks him to consider that he is testifying before magistrates and not to lie. The friar says, although he respects them, it is the duke who should be hearing the case. Escalus retorts that the duke's power is invested in them and he ought to speak justly. The friar responds that he will speak boldly and says that if the duke cannot hear the women, their cause is lost since they are coming to seek justice from the very man, Angelo, who has caused them injury. Lucio interrupts saying the friar is the "rascal" he spoke of, and Escalus condemns him to be tortured for setting the women on and for contempt, since he has called Angelo a "villain" and the proceedings "unjust." The friar tells those who would seize him to hold off, that the duke would no more do harm to him than to himself. Moreover, the friar continues, while he has been in Vienna he has seen great corruption. Escalus orders him to prison for slandering the state.

Angelo intervenes, asking if there are any present who can testify against the friar. As usual, Lucio comes forward and attributes to the friar words against the duke which he actually spoke himself. Escalus again orders the provost to take the friar to prison. When he resists there is a scuffle and Lucio, declaring that he ought to show himself and not hide under his monk's robe, pulls the cowl from his head only to reveal the duke. When Lucio, realizing what he is in for, tries to make himself scarce, the duke orders that Lucio "sneak not away." The duke immediately pardons Escalus for unknowingly having spoken and acted with disrespect towards him. Turning to Angelo, however, he challenges him to say anything in his own defense. Angelo with a sweep of self-debasing language confesses his "guiltiness." He admits he was contracted to Mariana. The duke orders them to go with Friar Peter and the provost to be married immediately and then to return.

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Turning to Isabella, the duke tells her that although he is her Prince rather than her friar, he is still her servant. She begs his pardon for having troubled so important a man with her business. He pardons her and excuses himself for her brother's death, explaining that he had thought to prevent it, but the speed of events overtook him.

Mariana and Angelo are brought back to the duke, married. The duke asks Isabella for Mariana's sake to forgive Angelo for having assaulted her virgin honor, but he adds that for having executed Claudio, there can be no forgiveness and Angelo must die. Mariana protests that the duke cannot so mock her as to give her a husband and then take him away from her and begs him to forgive Angelo. The duke refuses, saying he had them married to insure that she would not have been dishonored by having it thought that she had unmarried sexual intercourse and he says all of Angelo's wealth, which belongs to the state at his death, he confers upon her. Still she begs for mercy for Angelo and asks Isabella to join in her petition. The duke says that she asks an impossible thing, for how could Isabella possibly seek mercy for the man who murdered her brother. But as he speaks, Isabella kneels and joins Mariana in begging for Angelo. The duke still refuses to grant Angelo mercy, and Angelo himself, still the rigid Puritan, says he prefers death to mercy.

The duke abruptly shifts focus and asks the provost why Claudio was executed so early in the morning. The provost answers it was commanded, but the duke, establishing there was not a special warrant for it, relieves the provost of his authority and takes the keys of the prison from him. The provost says he had suspected something was not right and kept one of those ordered executed, Barnardine, alive. The duke regrets he had not done so with Claudio, too, and the provost says there is another one he spared. Claudio then appears, first muffled in his cloak and then revealing himself. At this, the duke releases Angelo from his punishment and tells him to love Mariana, and he instructs Claudio to marry Julietta. He then turns to Lucio, whom he first condemns to marry Kate Keepdown and then be whipped and hanged for slandering him. But he relents and only enforces the marriage, which Lucio says is worse than whipping and hanging. The duke thanks the provost for his service and promotes him to a higher office, instructs all who have been wronged to forgive their wrongers and proposes marriage to Isabella. The text itself does not indicate whether she accepts or not.



Abhorson is an executioner in the prison in Vienna.

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  • Measure for Measure was reinterpreted in a 1994 contemporary film version in modern dress. Made for British television, the film was directed by David Thacker and stars Tom Wilkinson as Duke Vincentio, Corin Redgrave as Angelo, and Juliet Aubrey as Isabella. It is available on DVD.
  • In 1979, as part of the Complete Dramatic Works of Shakespeare series presented on British television, an orthodox production of Measure for Measure was filmed starring Kenneth Colley as Duke Vincentio, Kate Nelligan as Isabella, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Angelo. The film was directed by Desmond Davis and is available on DVD.


Angelo is the apparently virtuous deputy the duke commissions to fill his place as ruler of Vienna during his absence. Angelo condemns Claudio to death for having had premarital sexual relations with his fiancée. But Angelo succumbs to temptation when Claudio's sister comes to beg for his life; he propositions her, saying he will show Claudio mercy if she yields herself to him. In the course of the play, it is revealed that Angelo has been engaged and has abandoned his fiancée when the size of her dowry did not meet his expectations.

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Barnardine is an unrepentant prisoner who refuses to be executed.


Claudio is a young man whom Angelo sentences to death for having had sexual intercourse with his fiancée, Juliet, before all the legalities of their marriage were completed. He is Isabella's brother.


Elbow is a comic constable who appears before Angelo when he brings Pompey before him on the charge of being a bawd.


Escalus is a learned magistrate in Vienna who advises the duke and Angelo on matters of law. He is inclined to favor mercy over severity in legal matters.


Froth is a tapster who works in a bawdy house run by Mistress Overdone and Pompey.


Isabella is Claudio's sister. At the beginning of the play, she is about to enter a convent known for the strictness of its discipline. A summons from Lucio to help Claudio when he is condemned to death, leads her to postpone entering the convent. When she petitions Angelo for Claudio's life, Angelo tells her he will have mercy on her brother if she surrenders herself sexually to him (Angelo). She refuses, but is saved from exercising such severity against her brother as her stance demands when the duke, disguised as a friar enlists her in a plot to expose Angelo's perfidy. At the end of the play, when she thinks that Angelo has betrayed his part in the agreement and has had Claudio killed, she nevertheless begs for mercy for him when his crimes are exposed.


Julietta is Claudio's fiancée. When she becomes pregnant, it becomes known that the two of them have engaged in pre-marital sexual intercourse.

Kate Keepdown

Kate Keepdown is the woman whom Lucio has gotten pregnant and whom he is forced to marry at the end of the play.

Friar Lodowick


Lucio tells Isabella about her brother Claudio's plight and encourages her to petition Angelo for mercy. Lucio is a loquacious, bawdy and comical character who boasts to the duke, when the duke is disguised as a friar, that, like Claudio, he has gotten a woman with child but had denied it when he had been brought before the duke on the charge. In the last act of the play, he is forced to marry the mother of his child.


Mariana is a woman whom Angelo had been contracted to marry and whom he jilted after her fortune was lost at sea and her brother drowned. She, nevertheless, continues to love Angelo. The duke arranges for Isabella to agree to Angelo's proposition to save her brother but to have Mariana take her place for their tryst.

Mistress Overdone

Mistress Overdone runs a bawdy house, which Angelo has ordered shut down.

Friar Peter

Peter is a friar whom the duke takes into his confidence while he himself is disguised as a friar.


Pompey is a bawd who works for Mistress Overdone. After he is arrested for his profession, he is sent to jail and becomes the assistant to Abhorson, the executioner.


The provost runs the prison and cooperates with the duke, whom he thinks is only a friar, in his attempt to save Claudio. He is a kind and virtuous man.


Ragozine is another prisoner, a pirate, who dies in prison the morning Claudio is supposed to be executed. The provost suggests sending Ragozine's head to Angelo as proof that Claudio has been executed.

Friar Thomas

Thomas is a friar whom the duke makes his confidant when he himself is in disguise.

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Vincentio, Duke of Vienna

Vincentio is the Duke of Vienna. Saying that he must leave the city, he deputizes Angelo to take his place because he hopes, he says, Angelo will enforce laws he has neglected, which it would seem tyrannous for him (the duke) to enforce. The real reason is to test Angelo. He knows of faults in Angelo that Angelo thinks are hidden. Disguised as Friar Lodowick, the duke remains in Vienna and directs the action of the play. At the conclusion of the play, he asks Isabella to marry him.


Chastity and Lewdness

Angelo and Isabella both represent chastity. Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone all represent lewdness. Both chastity and lewdness are thus presented as flawed. Chastity is presented as too icily inhuman. Lewdness is presented as too debased. In Measure for Measure, the institution of marriage, threatened by both the chaste and the lewd characters, is presented as the instrument of moderation between chastity and lust, allowing for a chaste expression of sexual passion.

Justice and Mercy

In its opening scenes, Measure for Measure presents justice and mercy as being antithetical to, and in conflict with, each other. Although both are strict puritans, Angelo stands for justice and Isabella stands for mercy. In her pleas, she does not deny that Angelo's condemnation of her brother is just, she only begs for mercy, which he claims would subvert justice. The duke attempts to show, by his manipulation of the plot and by his adjudications in the final act, that justice and mercy are actually aspects of each other. Justice without mercy is unjust. Mercy which does not take justice into account, as the mercy the duke shows to Angelo for Mariana's sake does, violates humanity.

The Conflict between Liberty and Restraint

When Isabella first appears, in act 1, scene 4, her first utterance is the question, "have you nuns no farther privileges?" She seeks to know the limits of the restraint she is undertaking. When a nun responds with an implicit reproach, "are not
Emma Fielding as Isabella and Daniel Evans as Angelo in Act II, scene iv at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2003 Emma Fielding as Isabella and Daniel Evans as Angelo in Act II, scene iv at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2003 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) these large enough?" Isabella makes it clear that she does "speak not as desiring more, / But rather wishing a more strict restraint." Somewhat more than a hundred lines before this, at act 1, scene 2, line 127, when Claudio, her brother, first appears, as he is being led to jail, Lucio questions him, "Whence comes this restraint?" Claudio replies, "From too much liberty." It seems then, that the opening hypothesis of Measure for Measure is that there can never be enough restraint, but there can always be too much liberty. There is a corollary, too. Liberty when it is excessive, leads to restraint. Restraint, similarly, leads to an eruption of liberty, or license, as it is called when restraint breaks its fetters. Despite Isabella's desire for as much restraint as possible in the convent, she herself will see, as Angelo will show her, that too much restraint is not a good thing. The duke himself has set up the opposition as a governing theme of Page 481  |  Top of Articlethe play when he explains that he has been lax in the enforcement of laws that he wants Angelo to resurrect.


The Embedded Author

The duke in Measure for Measure is not only a character in the play. He frequently functions as the author of the play, as he manipulates the characters and the plot, and determines both the action and the play's outcome.

Mixed Genre

Genre is a means of literary classification. Tragedy, comedy, musical, thriller, western, etc.—are of these are genres. Usually, but not always, a play can be classified according to one genre. Hamlet and Death of a Salesman are tragedies. As You Like It and You Can't Take It With You are comedies. There are particular characteristics that define the genre of a play. Tragedies usually end in the death of the hero, or in his downfall and exile from the community, as in Oedipus Rex. Comedies end in marriage and the re-integration of the outsider into the community, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor or The Taming of the Shrew. However, genres can be mixed within one play. Many plays are not only comedies but musicals, too. Musical comedies usually integrate music and comedy, hence the genre name. Measure for Measure is a mixed genre play with elements of tragedy and comedy. Occasionally, a play will be called a tragi-comedy or a comi-tragedy, but that is a more modern term. These plays are not as well integrated as music and comedy are in, for example, Kiss Me Kate, which is a modern musical comedy version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

In Measure for Measure, tragedy gives way to comedy at the end of the third act. As a signal for the change, the concluding soliloquy of act 3, scene 2 is composed in rhyming couplets, a verse pattern not otherwise found in Measure for Measure (except in the play's last two couplets). By its aa, bb, cc rhyme scheme, these couplets indicate closure and resolution rather than open-endedness or irresolution, which is often the mark of unrhymed verse. Immediately following the duke's speech in rhymed couplets at the end of act 3, act 4 opens with a song, further signaling that there has been a genre shift.

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  • Write a short story set in the present which uses the plot, conflicts, and themes of Measure for Measure.
  • Write a detailed psychological profile of four of the characters in Measure for Measure as you have come to understand them from your reading of the play.
  • Write an essay in which you explore the conflict between justice and mercy.
  • Choose a particular practice or behavior which is commonly considered immoral and discuss whether it ought or ought not to be so considered. The subject you choose may concern sexual behavior or practices, but it does not have to.
  • Choose a case of hypocrisy in high places (such as in government, business, or academia) from your reading of current events and compare it to the story of Measure for Measure.


King James I

Much scholarly opinion and research has indicated that in Measure for Measure, which was performed before the new king during the Christmas season in 1604, Shakespeare intended to celebrate various traits and beliefs of the king in the character of the duke and in the themes of the play. James I became king of England in March 1603, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. He was the author of several books, one on witchcraft and another on the role of the king. In Basilikon Doron, James asserted the divine right of kings and argued for the king's unitary power against Parliament. He also condemned sexual "immorality" and homosexuality in Page 482  |  Top of Articleparticular. He was known to be an intellectual and, despite his belief in his absolute power, he was also known for shunning great public displays. Although raised a Protestant and governing as a Protestant, James, who was also King James VI of Scotland, was born of a Catholic mother, Mary I, Queen of Scots. Queen Elizabeth had had Mary, who was her first cousin, executed in 1587 for plotting to overthrow her.

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  • 1603: In London, the Black Plague is responsible for over thirty thousand deaths.
    Today: While the AIDS epidemic in England, Western Europe, and the United States may not be as virulent as it was twenty years ago, and the disease is often managed with medication, it still is an epidemic and has the characteristics of a plague on the African continent.
  • 1603: King James I and ecclesiastical leaders condemn sexual immorality, and especially homosexuality, and homosexuals are executed.
    Today: There has been a great reduction among the mass of people, and inside many religious denominations, in the condemnation of homosexuality and the vilification of gay people. Strict laws punishing homosexuality have been rescinded in many countries, and some legal protections have been granted to gay people and to same-sex unions. Still, there remains a strong condemnatory current among national leaders, large segments of the population, and high-ranking religious leaders against homosexuality; and in some countries, homosexuality remains a punishable offense.
  • 1603: In a debate between Angelo and Escalus (act 2, scene 1), Shakespeare focuses on the problem of which kind of law is more effective and just, severe punishment or merciful restraint in punishment.
    Today: The argument is hardly resolved. Advocates of draconian punishment, harsh sentences and the death penalty argue that "being tough" works and makes people "think twice" before committing an offense. Advocates of less harsh measures want punishment to incorporate rehabilitation, offenders to be given a sense of their own humanity, and argue that there are social causes for criminal behavior and that root social problems must be addressed.

The Plague

References are made in Measure for Measure to the negative effects of a plague on Mistress Overdone's business. In 1603, the bubonic plague, also called the Black Death, was responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 people in London alone. (Measure for Measure was written in 1604.) During the time of the plague, the London theaters were forced to be closed to stop the spread of this virulent disease. The plague first struck Europe in the 1340s, having begun in south-western Asia; some seventy-five million people are reported to have died from it, worldwide, at that time. From then on, until the 1770s, the plague recurred at irregular intervals throughout Europe. A year after Shakespeare's death, in 1617, there was an epidemic of smallpox (another disease caused by a virus), and then the Black Death returned to London in 1625, killing somewhere in the range of 60,000 people. In 1636, it took another 10,000 souls in London, and in 1641, some thirty thousand more. But the plague was not confined to London. Throughout many of the years between its attacks in London, during the seventeenth century, it raged in places as distant from London and from each other as Venice, Holland, France, and Egypt, killing people in the millions. The cause of the plague was a bacteria that is believed to have been transferred from rats to humans by fleas bearing the illness. Page 483  |  Top of ArticleThese fleas lived on rats, which also carried the disease far and wide as they rode with trade goods on merchants ships. It was presumed that the rats were the culprits, as they were visible, whereas fleas were not as noticeable. The spread of disease by germs was not understood at that time. It was not until the 1890s that scientists discovered the bacteria responsible and traced the spread of the plague to fleas that lived on infected rats.


In 1922, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in the preface to his edition of Measure for Measure, asked, "What is wrong with this play?" summing up a centuries-old attitude. In 1765, in his "Prefaces to Shakespeare," Dr. Johnson declared that "[t]here is perhaps not one of Shakespeare's plays more darkened than this by the peculiarities of its Author." He wrote that "the light or comick part is very natural and pleasing, but the graver scenes, if a few passages be excepted, have more labour than elegance." And "the plot," he wrote, was "rather intricate than artful." In 1818, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his Lectures and Notes on Shakspere that Measure for Measure was a "hateful work, although Shakspere's throughout," that it was "painful" because "the pardon and marriage of Angelo not merely baffles the strong indignant claim of justice—(for cruelty, with lust and damnable baseness, cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive them as being morally repented of); but it is likewise degrading to the character of woman."

The year before, in 1817, in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, William Hazlitt gave a more thorough account than Coleridge of what many throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries would continue to find unsettling about Measure for Measure. Granting that the play is "full of genius as it is of wisdom," Hazlitt found, "[y]et there is an original sin in the nature of the subject, which prevents us from taking a cordial interest in it … our sympathies are repulsed and defeated in all directions." There is something repulsive in "Isabella's rigid chastity." The duke "is more absorbed in his own plots and gravity than anxious for the welfare of the state." Claudio's transgression is of a nature, despite his amiability, "which almost preclude[s] the wish for his deliverance. Mariana is also in love with Angelo, whom we hate." And the "principle of repugnance seems to have reached its height in the character of … Barnardine."

Twentieth-century critical responses to nineteenth-century subjectivity tried to explain away the difficulties which offended critics, who had objected to the licentious aspects of the play and to what was considered its too liberal acts of forgiveness. Critics also felt called upon to defend the play against the sort of repugnance Hazlitt expressed for the rigidity of its presentation of virtue, as represented by Isabella and Angelo. Angelo's failing, critics like George L. Geckle have asserted, is not his austere puritanism but a combination of faults. He is "a man sadly lacking in self-knowledge" who is guilty of an "assault against 'sacred chastity'" and of breaking a "promise to Isabella to spare Claudio's life in return for her favors."

In place of subjective readings, twentieth-century critics marshaled historical, religious, and philosophical scholarship in hopes of understanding the play by understanding its historical, religious, and philosophical contexts. Often the play was seen as an allegory. In 1931, W. W. Lawrence, in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies argued that "The duke in Measure for Measure combines the functions both of State and Church in his person. As Duke, he is supreme ruler … as Friar, he represents the wisdom and adroitness of the Church … advising stratagems so that good may come out of evil."

In his essay "Theological Exegesis" (1966), however, David Stevenson argued the ideologically imposed interpretations of Christian critics: "… all attempts to make Measure for Measure into an analogue of religious doctrine, or into some kind of religious allegory or parable, heavily restrict and contain its inferential power and thereby diminish its ability to communicate." Stevenson's book marks a return by writers on Measure for Measure to character analysis and structural analysis, to consideration of how characters represent human beings and confront human problems and how the parts of a play interact with each other to form a central set of meanings. Rather than seeing characters representing particular humors, aspects, or ideas, Stevenson sees them as complex persons with living, conflicting characteristics, faults, virtues, confusions, and vacillations.

In 1972, in "Theatrical 'Trompe L'Oeil' in Measure for Measure," Jocelyn Powell argues that "the variety of the play's structure is held Page 484  |  Top of Articletogether by a pattern of images which move between word and action." In "Isabella's Choice," (1994), Karl F. Zender considers Measure for Measure in terms of the interplay of Isabella's character and the genre of Romanic Comedy, weighing the effect each has on the other, and arguing that Measure for Measure is the culmination of Shakespeare's attempts to write in that genre. He sees Isabella as a transitional figure who tends towards such tragic figures as Cordelia, in King Lear, who, he argues, openly asserts female independence over male authority. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998, Harold Bloom offers a reading of Measure for Measure that can appeal to lay readers by concentrating on the complexities and contradictions of the characters themselves as persons with the same depths as actual human beings.

The return to humanist criticism, did not, however, preclude a return to historical and contextual criticism. Rather than the early and mid-twentieth-century focus on conforming the figures in the play to ideas and beliefs found in the Renaissance, the new historical readings attempt to see how historical influences affected the way Shakespeare used historical events and beliefs to think about history and character. Rather than making Measure for Measure conform to Jacobean or Christian doctrine, Stephen Cohen, in "From Mistress to Master: Political Transition and Formal Conflict in Measure for Measure," for example, argues that the play represents, and comments upon, the transition from the rule of the virgin queen, Elizabeth, to the patriarchal King James, who represented himself as divinely appointed. Also focusing on the historical context, Maurice Hunt, in "Being Precise in Measure for Measure, "considers the connotations of the word "precise" during the years preceding the composition of Measure for Measure—its positive, its negative, and its puritanical echoes, and the meanings constituted by its various uses in the play, as well as how the varying use of the word reflects on the characters who use it or about whom it is used.


Neil Heims

In the following essay, Heims argues that the ambiguity of the central conflict of Measure for Measure pervades the play's action and characterizations.

The text of a play is like the score of a symphony. It exists as a blueprint. It comes to life when performers construct it. Both musical scores and texts of plays, of course, can be read by those who know how to read them. And, there have always been and still are people who argue that their own reading, in the study, is more satisfying than any actual performance. But readers, whether of scores or scripts, are actually mounting productions in their heads and making interpretive choices regarding how to see and how to hear the scripts or scores which they are reading as surely as actors or musicians are when they prepare to present them. Most people, however, prefer or, more especially in the case of music—since a great majority of us are barely literate when it comes to reading music—need to have performers construct the work for them. The work that performers do in realizing a script or a score is primarily interpretive. How ought this phrase to sound? At what tempo ought that passage to be played? How ought the actor's voice to be inflected? Ought a particular scene to be played for its comic potential, or ought some, perhaps underlying, sinister element to be emphasized? How does actor A respond as actor B is speaking?

In a musical score, there are the composer's markings directing the players to play loud or soft, slow or fast, to accelerate or to play with feeling, but not always. Scores by Johann Sebastian Bach often do not even indicate which instrument or instruments ought to be used. Play scripts, too, have markings called stage directions. But not always! Shakespeare's plays, as they have been passed down to us, have hardly any. If one looks at the beginning of a play by George Bernard Shaw, for example, before there is a line of dialogue there may be pages of directions in italic type describing in intricate detail the stage set, the characters, the Page 485  |  Top of Article
Stephen Kennedy as Claudio and Penny Layden as Juliet, in Act 1, scene ii at the Swan Theatre, 1998 Stephen Kennedy as Claudio and Penny Layden as Juliet, in Act 1, scene ii at the Swan Theatre, 1998 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) weather outside. So with most modern plays! These directions help directors and performers in their production of the play, just as they help readers. But they can also constrain and restrict, narrowly specifying voice tones, emotional attitudes, and physical gestures.

In the plays of Shakespeare, there are hardly any stage directions. (In Measure for Measure there are almost none; a quick leafing through the text will show that the few there are, are nearly all in brackets: they have been introduced by an editor.) The absence of stage directions allows directors and performers and readers a freedom that heavily annotated scripts do not, unless, of course, one chooses to ignore or defy the author's indicated intentions. Absence of annotation also forces the script of the play to carry a great degree of ambiguity. Is the speaker open, guarded, sly, ironic, distracted? Ambiguity gives creative license to directors, actors, and readers. They become collaborators with the author in the creation of the play. But with license comes responsibility, the responsibility to make sense of the play as a coherent whole, to bring its characters to life, to decide how they say what they say and what they are doing as they are saying it. There often are some indications in the words themselves, but not always, and seldom definitively. Measure for Measure offers particular challenges to those who would mount the play, whether in their minds or on the stage. It is a play full of ambiguities with regard to the ideas, possible beliefs, and conflicts it presents; is full of ambiguities with regard to the motivations of its characters, and even with regard to what they do or how they behave.

When a character speaks, the interpreter of that character, whether reader or actor, has at least some sense of what the character thinks and feels and what he or she is doing. Claudio, for example, when he first appears, is being led to prison. His exchanges, first with the Provost and then with Lucio, convey a great deal about him beside the essential fact that he has made love with his contracted fiancée before the final marriage ceremony and she has become pregnant. But much of what is conveyed about him, regarding the person he is, is not fixed and Page 486  |  Top of Articledefinitive. Here is the dialogue between Claudio and the Provost:

CLAUDIO: Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to th' world?
   Bear me to prison, where I am committed.

PROVOST: I do it not in evil disposition, But from Lord Angelo by special charge.

CLAUDIO: Thus can the demigod Authority Make us pay down for our offence by weight. The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will;
On whom it will not, so. Yet still 'tis just.

Much is revealed in these mere eight lines, but what, exactly? How ought Claudio's first words to be read or spoken: with an emphasis on Claudio's anger at being put on display as a criminal, or on his shame at being shown, or how much of each if a blending of both? Is he pleading or demanding or defiant when he says "Bear me to prison."? As for the Provost, when he responds, is he defensive, or compassionate, or simply indifferent? And when Claudio meditates on his situation and the power that has him in its grip, what exactly is his attitude? When he concludes, "Yet still 'tis just," does he really mean that? Does he accept the fact that the act which he committed is and ought to be an offense to the law and deserves the punishment of death? (His sister does.) Or is he speaking with bitter irony, suggesting something like, "that's what is taken for justice; that sort of abusive treatment is called just." Both readings are possible, but each makes a very different man. They are varying interpretations, differing stances that a reader, actor, or director may take towards the outlook of the play. And it begs the question to think that there is one proper interpretation of Claudio's speech which can be ascertained from a reading of the whole play, for nearly every line can be read in such a variety of ways as to validate any number of interpretations of other lines. When Claudio responds to Lucio's question, "Whence comes this restraint?" by saying "From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty," is he speaking like a well-chastened choir-boy or is he bitter and ironic, or has he resigned himself to the strange and risky fluctuations and interactions of our biological and social economies?

An example of a perhaps even more ambiguous situation comes when the duke counsels Claudio, beginning at act 3, scene 1, line 5 to "Be absolute for death." Is this speech to be read or recited as a sermon, as if it were an infusion of real truth, easily extractable from its context in the play and ready for framing and posting on the wall? Is the audience supposed to accept the contempt for life the duke is counseling or hear it with a great degree of suspicion? Both are perfectly reasonable responses, and both can find authorization from human experience. Both, like John Milton's paired poems, L'Allegro and Il Pensoroso reflect authentic, even if opposing, human attitudes towards life.

Perhaps a less ambiguous moment comes in Isabella's outburst against Claudio beginning at line 136 of act 3, scene 1, after he has shown himself less than absolute for death. He wonders if her sacrifice of virginity in order to save his life would really taint her with an eternally damning stain. She rages, calls him "beast," "faithless coward," and "dishonest wretch." She wonders if their mother had not cheated on her father when she conceived Claudio. She wishes death upon him and says she will pray for it. Isabella seems to be drawn unambiguously here. Still, a good actress can imbue her rage with a range of motivations which can bleed into and shape her performance. Is she moved by Christian anger? Or does his desire for life stir a similar desire, deeply repressed and unacknowledged, in her, and therefore provoke her to fury? And what of the audience? Accepting, for example, that this speech reveals Isabella's true Christian belief, and even assuming (although there is no warrant to do so and doing so would make for slipshod reading, in any event) that Shakespeare believed it, too, response to her will vary according to the reader's or the spectator's own evaluation of and attitude toward that belief. What for some may appear righteous saintliness may to others appear vile and ghastly. In addition, how then is this Isabella to be reconciled with the Nancy-Drew-like figure of act 4, scene 1, who eagerly lays out for the duke the midnight route to Angelo's garden and explains which key fits which door's keyhole?

These problems of interpretation are challenging. But far more challenging is the problem of staging, in the mind or in the theater, what happens, what meaning is to be derived, when a character says nothing, as Isabella, Angelo, and Claudio all do for the last hundred or so lines of Measure for Measure. Then, interpreters must impose upon those characters an understanding Page 487  |  Top of Articleof them entirely unguided by any present utterance. For a reader, because it is the nature of reading to focus only on what is being read, and for what is not being read to fade into the background of consciousness, the problem of what to do with the silence of these characters is not as pronounced as it is for a director who has actual actors on a stage, in view of the audience, who must, even if silent, remain in character and actively participate, somehow, in the scene.

After Isabella completes her plea for Angelo, at line 453 of the act 5, arguing that Angelo's "act did not o'ertake his bad intent, / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,[to law] / Intents but merely thoughts," she remains silent. When Claudio is brought on and shown to be alive, the duke says, "If he be like your brother, for his sake / Is he pardoned." This ought to be a climactic moment in the play. But as far as the script is concerned, it is not. Not one word do brother and sister say to each other, nor to anyone else. Nor are there any stage directions which indicate their responses. Presumably they embrace, but maybe not. No matter, it is not a moment for any lingering reaction or emotion. Before the line in which "Is he pardoned" appears is ended, at the caesura, the break in the middle of the line, the duke shifts the focus, seemingly onto Isabella, but actually onto himself: "and for your lovely sake," he continues, "Give me your hand, and say you will be mine." To this second startling event, as momentous as her brother's re-emergence from apparent death, Isabella, once again, says nothing. Nor is there a stage direction indicating what her response is. Perhaps she does, perhaps she does not extend her hand.

Presumably, for that is what happens conventionally, Isabella is overcome with happiness at the proposal of her Duke Charming. All the writers who see the play as a Christian allegory assume they marry. Bertrand Evans, in "Like Power Divine: Measure for Measure suggests Isabella is "speechless at the sensation of blood flowing in her veins." But, really, there is no textual indication that this is or ought to be the case, nor any reason to assume that Shakespeare is writing conventionally. The sacrifice of her own self-interest or desire for vengeance which led her to kneel for Angelo's pardon might well suggest that she is even more prepared for the self-abnegation of the life in the Franciscan Sisterhood which first she sought. Her silence may even remind us that she was entering the cloister to find and practice silence. But there is no time to consider this, either. The duke continues unfolding his plot. The duke concludes his marriage proposal decorously adding that now, Claudio "is my brother too," and adds—why? because he sees no enthusiastic reaction on Isabella's part? or because he thinks that the public space they are in is not the proper place for the overflow of the joy he sees on her face?—"but fitter time for that."

Turning his attention and ours to Angelo, then, the duke does give a kind of stage direction in his speech. "By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe," the duke says: "I see a quick'ning in his eye." But Angelo, like Isabella, now says nothing. And the description of him is only the duke's response—not an omniscient stage direction—perhaps even only what he wishes to see. Angelo's last words had not indicated a great softening in his icy righteousness or a desire for safety. Directly before Isabella's intervention, Angelo had professed himself penitent, but added, "I crave death more willingly than mercy; / 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it." If he is sincere, he is perfectly in accord with the self he was at the start of the play. And if this is merely rhetoric, he also is. For he has been both a righteous man and a hypocrite.

The conclusion of Measure for Measure is not definite. It is not the unambiguously happy resolution that Puck suggests in the little rhyme ending act 3, scene 2 of A Midsummer Night's Dream where "Jack shall have Jill" and "Nought shall go ill." The only coupling that approaches Puck's ideal is Claudio and Julietta's, but their love is not the matter of the play, only the instrument that sets the central human and philosophical conflicts in motion. That the young lovers remain in the background at the conclusion is of no consequence. In the script, it is not clear how Angelo feels about his restoration to the world, and there is no direct indication of how he feels about Mariana or marriage to her. And Isabella seems ironically to have found that she may exercise her silence in marriage rather than in a convent, "if" she accepts the duke's proposal, an "if" which remains unanswered when the play ends. As for the duke, may it be in her thoughts that by saving her brother's life, he hoped to gain possession of what Angelo sought to have, Isabella herself, and by the same strategy? Page 488  |  Top of ArticleIndeed, when the duke proposes marriage to Isabella a second time—does that indicate that she failed to respond to his first offer?—in the couplet preceding the final couplet, there seems to be some significance resonant in the fact that instead of echoing something like Puck's pastoral ditty, he somewhat recalls Angelo with the suggestive turn embedded in his risqué rhyme:

     … if you'll a willing ear incline,
     What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Measure for Measure, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Allan Bloom

In the following essay, Bloom examines the sexual mores on display in Measure for Measure. Specifically, the critic analyzes Duke Vincentio's efforts to restore the laws governing sexual conduct in Vienna, which Shakespeare portrays as "a sexual mess." The duke's decision to disguise himself as a priest while studying the city's habits ultimately leads to his reinforcement of the institution of marriage. Bloom contends that the play treat marriage as somewhat unnatural but nevertheless politically important.

Measure for Measure is another play that is dominated by a priest's plot, but, unlike the plot in Romeo and Juliet, this equally contrived solution to a problem works. The happy result makes us laugh. The solution to sexual problems is comic both because it is so improbable and because coping reasonably with these desires somehow makes them look ridiculous. Perhaps the plot works because the priest is not really a priest but a genuine political ruler who uses the cloak of religion to hide himself and his designs. Political wisdom seems to require some such religious coloring in order to make itself acceptable to the unwise subjects. Certainly this false friar escapes the law's narrow concentration on men's deeds by using the Church's capacity to get inside men's thoughts.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • "Abu Hassan, or The Sleeper Awakened,", in The Arabian Nights (850 C.E.), is one of the tales in which the caliph Haroon al Rashid goes among his people disguised as a common man. In this tale, the caliph tricks Abu Hassan into believing that he himself is the caliph.
  • The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal's 1839 novel of romance and political intrigue set principally in the court of Parma after the fall of Napoleon, introduces a sexual-political conflict when the Duchess Sanseverina consents to yield herself to the Prince of Parma for the sake of her beloved nephew's safety.
  • In Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest, the principal character, who actually is unaware of his true identity, counterfeits an identity different from the one he thinks is his. This most well-known play by Wilde was written in 1894, was first produced in 1895, but did not appear in print until 1899.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic American novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850) pits the forces of Puritanism against the forces of desire and has as its focus a minister tormented by a sexual lapse that he simultaneously struggles to conceal and to confess.

The explicit intention of Duke Vincentio's ruse is to restore the force of law, which has for either fourteen or nineteen years been allowed to fall into desuetude. The laws in question are perhaps the most decisive of laws, those concerning sexual conduct. They appear to be the most necessary and the harshest, those that go most against nature's grain. Precisely why the Duke has neglected to enforce the laws is difficult to understand. Either he was, like Prospero, too involved with his own thought to pay attention to the unpleasant business of governing, as Escalus suggests, or, as a bachelor, he himself profited from the laxness in the city. There is a hint of this latter interpretation when Friar Thomas takes the Duke's petition for haven to be a request to carry on an affair in his monastic abode (I.iii.1-6). This immediate supposition on Friar Thomas' part would seem to be based on prior experience. And as we shall see, the Duke is Page 489  |  Top of Articletoo honest a man to be simply a hypocrite in condemning practices in which he participates. The Duke knows the legislator is beyond the law, but the law requires his conviction and support. There may be need for terror in order to put law in the seat usurped by lust, but the Duke respects nature and will not lend himself to the dishonesty required simply to deny it. The mercy that tempers the harshness of the newly reapplied law stems from the reflection that "there but for the grace of God go I," that is, both you and I have the same desires and perhaps the same experiences as those who are condemned. The law that condemns erotic activity is made by erotic men. This leads to the heart of the play's ambiguity.

Vienna is the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Church, in both its purity and its corruption, is highly visible there. The Duke effects a kind of Reformation in Vienna, and the astounding fact of the play is that throughout it untamed sexual desire is accepted as a fact of life. Those who do not admit it are as much reformed as those who do.

Vienna is a sexual mess. Bawdy houses are the accepted way to get sexual satisfaction. People talk of them as they do about food markets, and take it for granted that they can be no more easily suppressed than are the food markets, which are necessary. If the proprietors and clients of the bawdy houses, or, in general, all the loose individuals, are something less than admirable, they are either merely comic, which means harmless, or pleasant persons of good company. They are not like criminals who knew they were breaking the law and got caught; they are really surprised that there can be such laws and that they are to blame.

Nobody, but nobody, is married in this town. There is no family, and marriage is not understood to be necessary for procreation. Natural children are hardly thought to be bastards, and the Christian's insistence that a child not born in holy wedlock is a counterfeit has no weight in Vienna. Escalus, a remnant of the old regime, asks Pompey whether Mistress Overdone had more than one husband. He responds, "Nine, sir; Overdone by the last" (II.i.198-199). People once had fathers and mothers, but they are gone. The extreme expression of what is sexually wrong in Vienna is that there is a great deal of venereal disease, the result of promiscuity. The Duke apparently finds this situation intolerable. His response, as we shall see, is not "get thee to a nunnery," in either sense. He wishes to reestablish the institution of marriage, which is a mode of sexual expression, although one constrained by law. He apparently is ready to do so because he is now at the point where he is himself willing to marry. It should not be forgotten that his plot culminates in his own marriage, which would have been impossible if the reform had not taken place. What appears to be an extremely severe reform turns out to be actually a gentle one, with license given even to the houses of ill fame for the sowing of wild, that is, unlawful, oats, on the condition that they be less open and be ashamed before respectable institutions. But getting a lot of people married is the central intention of this political deed. The naturalness of marriage is questioned by the action of the play while its political necessity is affirmed.

The Duke's withdrawal from Vienna is an assumption of a god-like behavior. He is an absent god for whom a human deputy acts. This deputy is watched by another branch of the god's presence in absence, the Church and its priests. The Duke, disguised as a friar, spies out what the law would never see or take into account. This actually reveals a weakness in the written law itself and in its executors. The priest acts deceptively, dishonestly, and abuses the Church's doctrines in order to attain his ends. His behavior is innocuous in Measure for Measure because the priest is actually the ruler. The supplement to the law provided by the Duke's prudence, his exceptions of persons, and his privately gained knowledge of the inner life of souls would be requisite for full justice. However, its political institutionalization by means of the Church would be as fraught with difficulties as is the appointment of a deputy. Shakespeare, following [fifteenth-century author and political theorist Niccolo] Machiavelli as well as the whole classic tradition, is disapproving Page 490  |  Top of Article
Flora Robson as Isabella in a 1933 production of Measure for Measure Flora Robson as Isabella in a 1933 production of Measure for Measure (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis) of the rule of priests. In this case, however, the real ruler in the guise of priest is able to make Angelo, his deputy, assume that his position is invulnerable because nobody other than Isabella knows what he has done, whereas the false priest knows it all. Here the Duke's disguise permits Page 491  |  Top of Articlehim to be omniscient, as is a god, and to manipulate and to mitigate the omnipotence of the political ruler. In extreme cases, such as the basic reform the Duke is effecting, what Machiavelli calls unusual modes are necessary and just.

The Duke's withdrawal and the appointment of an efficient and severe deputy to do the nasty business is a tactic Machiavelli applauds. He gives as an example for imitation Cesare Borgia's appointment of Remirro de Orco as his deputy when he wanted to reduce the Romagna to peace and obedience. When de Orco had successfully completed the tasks given him by Cesare, the latter,

because he knew that past rigors had generated some hatred for Remirro, to purge the spirits of that people and to gain them entirely to himself,… wished to show that if any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from him but from the harsh nature of his minister. And having seized this opportunity, he had him placed one morning in the piazza at Cesena in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. The ferocity of this spectacle left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.

Shakespeare, in his sweeter way, actually imitates Machiavelli's example with his play. The punishment of Angelo is rendered more moral than was Remirro's, because Angelo is actually disloyal to his master, whereas Remirro was not. One gradually becomes aware that the Duke's purpose is as much to humiliate Angelo as to punish fornicators. As a matter of fact, the person who most suffers punishment and humiliation in the play is Angelo, a strange way to go about restoring sexual morals. Rather than being cut in half, Angelo suffers an equally fearsome fate—he must marry. The populace is impressed by both the Duke's harshness and his mercifulness. The Duke, on the one hand, acts like the Moral Majority in the sanctifying of the family. On the other, he acts like the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] in impugning the motives of the Moral Majority. He obviously thinks that neither is quite the right thing. The Duke tells Claudio, "Be absolute for death" (III.i.5), whereas the play is absolute for life. Aside from the hapless Claudio, the only person other than Angelo to suffer greatly in the play, in which such severe punishment threatens and in which executioners are so visible, is Isabella. And Isabella is also the only other person with high moral pretensions. Much of Measure for Measure's message is conveyed when Pompey the pimp is appointed deputy executioner. This play illustrates the humanizing of the law by making sure that it is not made by beings who have never felt the human movements of soul and body. A godlike law applied to humans rather than angels results in a perversity that is worse than lechery.

The Duke surely knows what Angelo is prior to appointing him and suggests to the more humane Escalus, more humane in that he remembers in his old age the desires he had when he was young, that he wants to see what Angelo will do. He also knew prior to the action of the play that Angelo had abandoned Mariana in spite of his pledges to her. Angelo is much worse than Claudio, who merely put off marriage until the dowry came through but remained faithful, if that is the word, to Juliet, whereas at the loss of the dowry, Angelo jilted Mariana. Still, he appears honestly tormented when he becomes attracted to Isabella. A sophistry of the heart could have allowed him to forget his bad behavior to Mariana, and there seems to have been no sexual relationship with her. There money seems to have been the theme. Whether the Duke could have counted on Isabella's attracting the attention of Angelo or not, the Duke did expect some such abuse of power. It would seem likely that her brother, Claudio, the first and only real sufferer from the reawakened law, was pointed out to Angelo by the Duke. It is not necessary to assume that Angelo is a Tartuffe [the hypocritical priest in Jean Baptiste Moliere's seventeenth-century play of the same title], self-consciously using his reputation for piety to gain access to women.

What we see in the great scene with the lecherous Lucio, urging Isabella to heights of rhetoric, is the welling up in Angelo of an erotic attraction to the notion of corrupting virtue (II.ii.26-187). This is a perversity beyond any that might be attributed to the low persons in the play who have frank sexual attractions to good-looking persons or merely have a need for sexual release. There is a refinement in Angelo that sets his senses in motion in the presence of innocence and virginity. It is eroticism heightened and refined by its being forbidden. He confesses to himself that this is infinitely more attractive than natural sexual appeals. Angelo's imperious need for Isabella is inconcievable without the attraction of its being a sin.

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The two encounters between Angelo and Isabella are the highlights of this play. He moves, in his own self-understanding, from god to sinner. Before our eyes we see the genesis of guilt. He wills and he does not will. Before, he thought that will and deed are identical in him. He elevates sexual desire into the realm of the forbidden, forbidden by his own standards and his position, and then hates himself for his sexual desire. He becomes disgusted by sexual desire in others, because he attributes to them the same criminality he finds in himself. This makes him into a criminal: he forces Isabella to have sexual intercourse with him and murders Claudio to cover up the rape. At least he thinks he commits these terrible deeds and is foiled only by the Duke's manipulation of appearances. He begins as the cold instrument of the law and metamorphoses into the only malevolent person in the play. This means he delights in doing harm while struggling with his conscience. Sinning and repenting become a way of life for him. Presenting himself as the enforcer of law on fallen man, he actually reenacts the harshness of God at the fist Fall.

Shakespeare has very little sympathy for this kind of moralistic sexuality. He has a particular need to humiliate men who make claims like Angelo's. Henry V, in his typically cold fashion, uses the severe Chief Justice to punish the inhabitants of the Boar's Head Inn, especially Falstaff, with whom he has spent his youth and for whom Shakespeare has a great deal of sympathy. He does so for the sake of public morals, as opposed to private satisfaction, now that he is king. He does so also to satisfy the puritanical passions that are rife among the people and which Shakespeare rightly saw would threaten civil peace. These were not the simple moral demands that frighten liberals so, but real puritanical passions of the sort that are today making parts of the Islamic world ungovernable. Something like this is what the Duke is after, though he accomplishes it much more nicely than does Hal. Not only does he wish to channel the sexual affections more or less into family attachments, but he also wants to fend off the threat of extreme reactions by Puritans, whose souls have been prepared for extremism by their religion. The sense of sin grafted on to sexual desire, not a thing to be found in Mistress Overdone's house, accounts for the distortions of Angelo's soul, and Shakespeare's dislike of Puritans is subjected here to profound and fundamental analysis. [Nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche said, "Christianity gave Eros poison to drink. He did not die, but became vice." Most of the others in the play are indulgent of dirty-minded but not perverse. It is imagination, not the body, which causes Angelo to be attracted to the conquest of purity.

Source: Allan Bloom, "Measure for Measure", in Shakespeare on Love and Friendship, University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 59-64.

Linda Anderson

In this excerpt from her study of the pervasiveness of revenge "as a useful social instrument in Shakespeare's comedies," Anderson reminds us that the duke temporarily leaves Vienna in Angelo's hands not only to correct the city's excessive vices but also to test Angelo's ability to wield power fairly. Further, Anderson observes that as Isabella is forced to make decisions regarding her chastity, her brother's life, and Angelo's hypocrisy—and as the duke himself steps in to draw the play to a close—the concept of revenge is intermingled with the concepts of justice and mercy to the extent that the three become "almost indistinguishable" from one another.

None of Shakespeare's titles is more suggestive of revenge than Measure for Measure. Although the phrase itself may mean no more than strict justice, it recalls the Old Testament law often cited as vengeful:

    … thou shalt paye life for life,
    Eie for eie, tothe for tothe, hand for hand, fote for fote,
    Burning for burning, wonde for wonde, stripe for stripe.(Exod. 21:23-25)

This is the spirit in which the Duke uses the phrase:

    The very mercy of the law cries out
    Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
    "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!"
    Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
    Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.

Yet the phrase itself is from quite another context:

    Judge not, that ye be not judged.
    For with what judgement ye judge, ye shal be judged, and with what measure ye
    mette, it shal be measured to you againe.
    (Matt. 7:1-2; see also Luke 6:37-38)
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That the Duke in judging Angelo for judging Claudio should condemn him with a paraphrase of a biblical injunction condemning judging suggests a more complex irony than merely that "the ending of the play, then, really contradicts the title." Although a traditional objection to the play is that Angelo escapes any real revenge, revenge is not absent from the play but is so intertwined with justice and mercy that what are elsewhere separate and even opposing qualities become, in Measure for Measure, almost indistinguishable.

The standard reading of the play, based on the Duke's explanation to Friar Thomas (1.3.19-43), is that Vincentio intends Angelo to (re)enforce the "strict statutes and most biting laws" of Vienna "to strike and gall" the citizens. But this is not what the Duke says to Angelo; rather, he links severity and leniency:

    Mortality and mercy in Vienna
    Live in thy tongue and heart.
    Your scope is as mine own,
    So to enforce or qualify the laws
    As to your soul seems good.

Since the Duke does not tell Angelo to be severe, but tells Friar Thomas that this severity is his aim in temporarily abdicating, if we take his words at their face value we can only assume that his knowledge of Angelo's character leads him to believe that Angelo will not err on the side of mercy. Although he is certainly correct in that belief, it has been asserted that the Duke fails to understand his deputy's character and is thus responsible for Angelo's actions. Not only does it seem rather harsh to condemn the Duke for accepting Angelo's character as Angelo presents it, but such a reading ignores another of Vincentio's purposes. In deputizing Angelo, the Duke has made it clear that he has no respect for a fugitive and cloistered virtue:

    There is a kind of character in thy life,
    That to th' observer doth thy history
    Fully unfold. Thyself and thy belongings
    Are not thine own so proper as to waste
    Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
    Heaven doth us as we with torches do,
    Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
    Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
    As if we had them not.

Not only does the Duke wish to make use of Angelo's virtue for the good of the state, he wishes to observe how Angelo's professed character is affected by power:

    … Lord Angelo is precise;
    Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
    That his blood flows; or that his appetite
    Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see
    If power change purpose: what our seemers be.

Angelo's trial begins with his judgment on Claudio, who enters not merely arrested but exhibited publicly through the streets at Lord Angelo's "special charge." Claudio at first seems resigned to a just punishment for an admitted crime:

    Claudio: Thus can the demigod, Authority,
    Make us pay down for our offense by weight
    The words of heaven: on whom it will, it will;
    On whom it will not, so; yet still 'tis just.
    Lucio: Why, how now, Claudio? whence comes this restraint?
    Claudio: From too much liberty, my Lucio, liberty:
    As surfeit is the father of much fast,
    So every scope by the immoderate use
    Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue,
    Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
    A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.

But having explained the extenuating circumstances of his offense (1.2.145-55), Claudio's tone changes. Although still admitting that he broke the law, he expresses feelings of persecution:

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    And the new deputy now for the Duke—
    Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
    Or whether that the body public be
    A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
    Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
    He can command, lets it straight feel the spur;
    Whether the tyranny be in his place,
    Or in his eminence that fills it up,
    I stagger in—but this new governor
    Awakes me all the enrolled penalties
    Which have, like unscour'd armor, hung by th' wall
    So long that nineteen zodiacs have gone round
    And none of them been worn; and for a name
    Now puts the drowsy and neglected act
    Freshly on me—'tis surely for a name.

Our next glimpse of Angelo is likely to incline us to Claudio's latter view. Angelo's first argument in favor of executing Claudio is not that the punishment fits the crime but that the ultimate penalty is needed pour encourager les autres. When Escalus argues for mercy and suggests that in a similar situation Angelo himself might have acted similarly, Angelo rejects the argument (2.1.1-31). Not until later in the play does the irony of this rejection become clear: "Moreover—and it is one of the dramatist's most subtle and original uses of parallelism—Claudio's relation to Juliet had been almost of a piece with that of Angelo to Mariana. But where the one for worldly reasons left his already affianced bride in the lurch, the other with generous impetuosity had preferred disregard of an outward form to heartless desertion. Thus Claudio's transgression is in itself most venial, and Angelo is the last man justified in visiting it with condign penalties" (Boas 1896, 362). Whether or not Angelo would equate his situation with Claudio's, he calls down vengeance upon his own head if he ever commits Claudio's offense:

    When I, that censure him, do so offend,
    Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
    And nothing come in partial.

Our opinion of Angelo's severity is influenced by that of the other characters who enforce the laws in Vienna. Not only does Escalus plead for and pity Claudio, but the Justice remarks that "Lord Angelo is severe" (2.1.282) and the Provost risks Angelo's anger by questioning the order for execution (2.2.7-14) and comments to himself on Claudio's state:

    He hath but as offended in a dream!
    All sects, all ages smack of this vice, and he
    To die for't!

These characters serve to support the opinion that "Angelo (the name is patently ironical: he puns on it himself) is law or legalism, rather than justice. His hard, prim, precise ruling by the book is not felt to be just, because his rule makes all offences the same size; and to think of incontinence or fornication as if it were murder does violence to all normal human feelings" (Rossiter 1961, 121). In a minor key, however, Angelo's severity triumphs over his legalism when he expresses his hope for punishment in the case against Pompey and Froth, which he does not bother to hear:

    I'll take my leave,
    And leave you to the hearing of the cause,
    Hoping you'll find good cause to whip them all.(2.1.135-37)

Isabella, at first, seems to find it difficult to argue with Angelo. Admitting that Claudio's offense is

    a vice that most I do abhor,
    And most desire should meet the blow of justice

she is easily swayed by Angelo's statement that his function is to punish criminals; declaring it a "just, but severe law" (2.2.41), she would abandon Claudio to his fate, if it were not for Lucio. Her succeeding (though unsuccessful) arguments are rather an odd mixture. She first suggests that Angelo might pardon Claudio "and neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy" (2.2.50); to this, Angelo replies that he will not. She then argues that mercy is the greatest ornament of authority, and that if their positions were reversed Angelo would have sinned as did Claudio, but Claudio would not have condemned him for it; Angelo asks her to leave. She then pleads as a Christian:

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    Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once,
    And He that might the vantage best have took
    Found out the remedy. How would you be
    If He, which is the top of judgment, should
    But judge you as you are? O, think on that,
    And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
    Like man new made.

Angelo replies that "It is the law, not I, condemn your brother" (2.2.80), and Isabella again shifts her ground, first requesting a reprieve and then asking "Who is it that hath died for this offense?" (2.2.88). Angelo responds that the reawakened law, enforced, will prevent future evils. When Isabella asks him to "show some pity" (2.2.99), he equates that quality with justice:

    I show it most of all when I show justice;
    For then I pity those I do not know,
    Which a dismiss'd offense would after gall,
    And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
    Lives not to act another.

But Isabella replies to this with another equation, asserting that what Angelo calls justice is in fact tyranny (2.2.106-9, 110-23, 126-28, 130-31, 134-36), adding,

    Go to your bosom,
    Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
    That's like my brother's fault. If it confess
    A natural guiltiness such as is his,
    Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
    Against my brother's life.

This argument now seems to affect Angelo, although he has already heard it from Escalus and rejected it (2.1.8-31). But we soon learn that it is not Isabella's varied pleas that justice be tempered with mercy that have affected Angelo's professed conviction that harsh justice for Claudio is mercy for Vienna. Angelo's final speech in this scene reveals how her arguments have touched him: "Isabella has insisted that there is a natural, sexual man hidden below Angelo's exterior of virtue. And at her bidding the sexual man steps forth with a ve[n]geance" (Stevenson 1966, 42). Realizing this, Angelo (in soliloquy) completely reverses his previous argument:

    O, let her brother live!
    Thieves for their robbery have authority
    When judges steal themselves.

Finally, he sounds the first note of vengeance in the play with his invocation of the tempter who seeks to avenge his fall on mankind:

    O cunning enemy, that to catch a saint,
    With saints dost bait thy hook!

With these lines Angelo, the villain of the piece, reveals that he feels himself a victim of diabolical revenge. But since he attributes the revenge to his righteousness, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him even before he begins plotting his crimes.

At their second meeting, Angelo and Isabella continue to debate justice and mercy even though the subject of the argument has widened to include Isabella's chastity as well as Claudio's life. Isabella, however, is concerned now with divine justice, rather than the divine mercy she invoked in their previous argument, while Angelo concentrates on earthly concerns:

    Angelo: Which had you rather, that the most just law
    Now took your brother's life, [or,] to redeem him,
    Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
    As she that he hath stain'd?
    Isabella: Sir, believe this,
    I had rather give my body than my soul.
    Angelo: I talk not of your soul….

Angelo insists that divine justice is earthly cruelty, that there might be "a charity in sin" (2.4.63), but Isabella insists on maintaining distinctions:

    Isabella: Better it were a brother died at once,
    Than that a sister, by redeeming him,
    Should die for ever.
    Angelo: Were not you then as cruel as the sentence
    That you have slander'd so?
    Isabella: Ignomy in ransom and free pardon
    Are of two houses; lawful mercy
    Is nothing kin to foul redemption.

Ultimately, their debate results in threats of revenge:

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    Isabella: Ha? little honor to be much believ'd,
    And most pernicious purpose! Seeming, seeming!
    I will proclaim thee, Angelo, look for't!
    Sign me a present pardon for my brother,
    Or with an outstretch'd throat I'll tell the world aloud
    What man thou art.
    Angelo: Redeem thy brother
    By yielding up thy body to my will,
    Or else he must not only die the death,
    But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
    To ling'ring sufferance.

While Angelo's righteousness crumbles, we see the disguised Duke combining justice and mercy by trying Juliet's repentance (2.3.21-36) and counseling Claudio to be absolute for a death that the Duke's presence insures he will not suffer (3.1.5-41). Moreover, this presence, and in particular the Duke's eavesdropping on Claudio and Isabella, may direct our opinion of her passionate outburst against her brother's plea that she yield to Angelo.

Various critics have found repugnant Isabella's conviction that "more than our brother is our chastity" (2.4.185). But the Duke, our principal standard of ethics in the play, expresses no such repugnance; on the contrary, he describes Isabella as "having the truth of honor in her" and tells her "the hand that hath made you fair hath made you good" (3.1.164, 180-81). As for the possibility that she is affected by "her recoil from her rage at Claudio" (Stevenson 1966, 46), there is no evidence of it; not only has she previously threatened to expose Angelo, but before the Duke proposes his plot and assuming that Claudio will already have been executed, she tells Vincentio "But O, how much is the good Duke deceiv'd in Angelo! If ever he return, and I can speak to him, I will open my lips in vain, or discover his government" (3.1.191-94). If Isabella suffers any loss of innocence, it is due to the discovery of evil in Angelo and cowardice in Claudio; both discoveries make her justifiably angry, but they do not affect her virtue, which, as the Duke says, is bold (3.1.208). As for the "duplicity" of the plot, the Duke has answered the question before it was asked: "the doubleness of the benefit defends the deceit from reproof" (3.1.257-58).

The deceit is particularly interesting for the multiplicity of purposes it serves, as the Duke suggests more than once (3.1.199-204, 251-55). It allows the Duke to provide justice for Mariana and Angelo, mercy for Claudio, and pleasure for himself, in addition to allowing Isabella revenge on Angelo by turning his own scheme against him. The rightness of the plot is reinforced by the various episodes in the remainder of act 3, in which we see the Duke act justly toward various transgressors. After attempting in vain to persuade Pompey of the error of his ways, he concludes

    Correction and instruction must both work
    Ere this rude beast will profit.

Similarly, he tries to dissuade Lucio from slandering the Duke and, failing that, challenges him to stand by his slanders when the Duke returns (3.2.116-57). Finally, he comments on Angelo and on his own plans:

If his own life answer the straitness of his proceeding, it shall become him well; wherein if he chance to fail, he hath sentenc'd himself.


    Craft against vice I must apply.
    With Angelo to-night shall lie
    His old betrothed (but despised);
    So disguise shall by th' disguised
    Pay with falsehood false exacting,
    And perform an old contracting.

The Duke's use of craft is further justified when Angelo compounds his tyranny with treachery, refusing to pardon Claudio after all (4.2.120-26). Driven to further shifts to save Claudio, the Duke also tries to deal both justly and mercifully with "the magnificent and horrible Barnardine" (Rossiter 1961, 166), seeking to advise, comfort, and pray with him before his deserved execution (4.3.50-52). But being unwilling to damn Barnardine's soul, he is compelled to spare him.

But though Barnardine is spared, Isabella is not, for the Duke tells her that Claudio has been executed. His excuse for this cruel lie—

    But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
    To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
    When it is least expected
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—is hardly convincing. A more likely explanation for such behavior from a character who throughout the play tests and interrogates others is that he is preparing to test Isabella. The actual test, however, will not take place until the last act. Although Isabella's reaction to the news of her brother's death—"O, I will to him [Angelo], and pluck out his eyes!" (4.3.119)—is that of a stage revenger rather than a novice nun, it meets, in tenor if not in immediate action, with the Duke's full approbation:

    If you can pace your wisdom
    In that good path that I would wish it go,
    And you shall have your bosom on this wretch,
    Grace of the Duke, revenges to your heart,
    And general honor.

Revenge is likewise on Angelo's mind. Apprised of the Duke's return and of his proclamation that citizens craving redress of injustice may petition him upon his arrival, he is forced to consider, although he rejects, the possibility that Isabella may avail herself of this opportunity. Further, he explains his reason for proceeding (as he thinks) with Claudio's execution:

    He should have liv'd,
    Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
    Might in the times to come have ta'en revenge,
    By so receiving a dishonor'd life
    With ransom of such shame.

Just as the Duke administers to Isabella

    a physic
    That's bitter to sweet end

so to Angelo he administers praise that will make the blame to come more bitter (5.1.4-8, 9-16). After Isabella has made her accusation, he twists the knife further, pretending to disbelieve what he knows—in intent, at least—to be true and expressing an opinion of Angelo's character that—though popularly thought true—he knows to be false:

    By heaven, fond wretch, thou know'st not what thou speak'st,
    Or else thou art suborn'd against his honor
    In hateful practice. First, his integrity
    Stands without blemish; next, it imports no reason
    That with such vehemency he should pursue
    Faults proper to himself. If he had so offended,
    He would have weigh'd thy brother by himself,
    And not have cut him off.

The Duke's behavior toward Angelo is compounded of justice, mercy, and revenge. It is just to make him suffer the mental anguish that he has inflicted on Claudio, Isabella, and Mariana. Like the criminals the Duke advised in his role as a friar, Angelo can receive mercy only after he has been made to feel true remorse. Finally, the entire plot against Angelo, with its disguises, accomplices, and presentation to him first of Isabella's false charge (which he believes to be true) and Mariana's true charge (which he believes to be false), is a classic revenge. Angelo is hoist with his own petard—caught doing what he condemned Claudio for doing, although he thought he was doing something much worse.

Although the Duke is entrapping Angelo, and allowing Lucio to entrap himself, we can feel little sympathy for them because of their shameless persistence in their evil ways. Angelo, still believing he can bluff his way out of the case against him, calls down the law's vengeance on his own head, even though he is perceptive enough to see that his secret is out and that several people are plotting against him:

    I did but smile till now.
    Now, good my lord, give me the scope of justice,
    My patience here is touch'd. I do perceive
    These poor informal women are no more
    But instruments of some more mightier member
    That sets them on. Let me have way, my lord,
    To find this practice out.

Similarly, Lucio attempts to cover his own guilt by slandering an innocent friar (and thereby, although he doesn't know it, again slandering his prince). It is therefore appropriate that, urged on by Angelo, "when Lucio plucks off the Friar's hood and discovers the Duke, the impudent buffoon also accomplishes his own exposure" (Oscar James Campbell 1943, 130)—and Angelo's.

Although both Angelo and Lucio recognize that they are caught, they react very differently to the knowledge. Lucio merely remarks "This Page 498  |  Top of Articlemay prove worse than hanging" (5.1.360), while Angelo begs to be punished:

    O my dread lord,
    I should be guiltier than my guiltiness,
    To think I can be undiscernible,
    When I perceive your Grace, like pow'r divine,
    Hath look'd upon my passes. Then, good Prince,
    No longer session hold upon my shame,
    But let my trial be mine own confession.
    Immediate sentence then, and sequent death,
    Is all the grace I beg.

The Duke, having given Mariana justice by marrying her to Angelo, seems willing to grant Angelo's request for immediate execution, but he phrases the sentence in such a way as to reassure the audience that death will not be allowed to mar the ending of this comedy. "An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!" (5.1.409) would be strict justice; but in fact no death has occurred, and it would therefore be unjust to execute Angelo. As Isabella says, in another context:

    His act did not o'ertake his bad intent,
    And must be buried but as an intent
    That perish'd by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
    Intents but merely thoughts.

But at this point in the play, neither Angelo nor Isabella knows that Claudio is still alive. In addition to drawing out Angelo's punishment, the Duke seems to be testing Isabella's reaction to her brother's "murderer," although he is subtle about it. When Mariana asks Isabella to join her in pleading for Angelo's life, the Duke maintains that for her to do so would be so unnatural as to call down (or, in this case, up) supernatural vengeance:

    Against all sense you do importune her.
    Should she kneel down in mercy of this fact,
    Her brother's ghost his paved bed would break,
    And take her hence in horror.

Isabella nevertheless does join Mariana in her pleading, but her charity changes nothing, since the Duke continues to uphold Angelo's death sentence and Angelo himself professes to prefer death to mercy (5.1.455, 474-77). It is not until Claudio is revealed to be alive that the Duke pardons Angelo, and the "quickening" in the latter's eye indicates, presumably, that he has resigned himself to life (5.1.494-95).

Yet even as he forgives Angelo, Claudio, and Barnardine, the Duke declares

    I find an apt remission in myself;
    And yet here's one in place I cannot pardon.

Since Lucio's crime seems to us far less serious (and far more amusing) than Angelo's, this statement and the Duke's later speeches concerning Lucio have been taken by some critics as indications that Vincentio is vengeful rather than just in this case. In fact, however, the Duke behaves toward Lucio very much as he has toward Angelo, allowing him to suffer the apprehension of justice for his crimes and then extending mercy. Even the punishment that Lucio suffers is merely justice to the woman he has wronged.

If the Duke is more vindictive in his threats to Lucio than in those to Angelo, it may be excused on a number of counts. Angelo has, up to the point of his "temptation" by Isabella (and excluding his treatment of Mariana), been reputed a righteous man; even his condemnation of Claudio, although harsh, is within the law. It is difficult to imagine Lucio being able to plead a previous good character, and his victim, the Duke, is apparently entirely innocent of the accusations Lucio makes against him. Angelo's wicked designs remain merely "intents"; Lucio, on the other hand, actually commits the crime of "slandering a prince." Finally, Angelo professes remorse and craves punishment; Lucio makes excuses and seeks to avoid punishment. At the end of the play, there is hope that Angelo may truly reform; Lucio, like Barnardine, is forgiven because of the virtue of the Duke, not because he has deserved forgiveness or because we can even imagine him deserving it.

The play as a whole, and particularly the ending, have provoked a variety of critical responses. Oscar James Campbell, who sees the play as a satire on hypocrisy—as embodied by Angelo—and libertinism—as embodied by Lucio—finds the ending false: "the play does not end as a satire should. Angelo is exposed but not ejected from the play with a final burst of derision…. Angelo deserves not a wife, but Page 499  |  Top of Articlescornful ridicule" (1943, 125). If we assume that the "darker" aspects of the play do, in fact, indicate a satirical intention, this may be a valid criticism, but not every critic is willing to make such an assumption: "however much incidental gloom or bitterness may be there, the themes of mercy and forgiveness are sincerely and not ironically presented" (Tillyard 1950, 139). Knight takes an entirely different angle, viewing Angelo and Lucio as neither satiric figures nor objects of mercy but, in some degree, the heroes of the piece: "The punishment of both is this only: to know, and to be, themselves. This is both their punishment and at the same time their highest reward for their sufferings: self-knowledge being the supreme, perhaps the only, good" ([1930] 1949, 94-95). Finally, Chakravorty sees the play as a statement that mercy is superior to justice: "Punishment is the function of justice and belongs to the State which is an impersonal machinery; mercy or forgiveness, on the other hand, is the function of a superior ethic and belongs only to the individual" (1969, 259).

None of these positions seems to me to be completely accurate. Measure for Measure does not appear to be any kind of sustained satire. Angelo is not, at least at the beginning, entirely without merit, and even Lucio behaves well in trying to help his friend Claudio and urging Isabella on against Angelo. Although there are elements of the puritan in Angelo and of the swaggerer in Lucio, neither character is merely a conventional type; they are too individual to be the straw men of satire. On the other hand, there is no direct evidence that either character attains self-knowledge, except insofar as Angelo learns that he is not proof against temptation; Lucio merely attains self-pity. Although mercy is certainly a theme in the play, it is not presented in isolation or in opposition to justice or revenge. Rather, what the Duke achieves at the end of the play is a balanced combination of these three qualities, in which malefactors are lured by the devices of the stage revenger into betraying themselves, threatened with the force of justice, and finally pardoned. Angelo and Lucio do not get off without suffering or without making at least some restitution; Isabella does not declare that she loves Angelo, nor the Duke that he loves Lucio. The Duke alone is able to extend mercy (though others can ask for it), but he does not do so by nullifying justice. Rather, by applying "craft against vice," he takes revenge against wrongdoers, establishes justice for everyone, and at last extends a limited forgiveness to Angelo and Lucio not because they deserve it, but because his power, wisdom, and magnanimity allow him to be generous.

Source: Linda Anderson, "Problem Comedies," in A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies, University of Delaware Press, 1987, pp. 156-68.

Northrop Frye

Frye uses the title of Measure for Measure to organize his essay around some fundamental components of the play: characterization, theme, and genre. He demonstrates, for example, how the play measures one character against another (such as Angelo versus Claudio) and one theme against another (such as justice versus mercy, or "a justice that includes equity and a justice that's a narrow legalism"). Frye also looks at the duke's role as stage manager in the drama that occurs between Isabella, Angelo, and Mariana, and concludes by remarking on the ways in which Measure for Measure "proceeds upward" from potential tragedy to fulfill the requirements of comedy through marriage, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Most critics link the title of this play with a verse from the Sermon on the Mount: "Judge not, that ye be not judged: for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." The phrase is a common one, and was used by Shakespeare in an earlier play, but the link with this quoted passage seems to be clearly there, and suggests that this play is concerned, like much of The Merchant of Venice, with the contrast between justice and mercy. Only it doesn't talk about Christians and Jews; it talks about the contrast between large-minded and small-minded authority, between a justice that includes equity and a justice that's a narrow legalism. The title also suggests the figure of the scales or balance that's the traditional emblem of justice. The play seems to me very closely related to the late romances, and that's why I'm dealing with it here, although it's earlier than King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra.

The story used in the play has many variants, but the kernel of it is a situation where a woman comes to a judge to plead for the life of a man close to her, husband or brother, who's been condemned to death. The judge tells her that he'll spare the man's life at the price of her Page 500  |  Top of Articlesexual surrender to him. In some versions she agrees and the judge double-crosses her, having the man executed anyway. She then appeals to a higher judge, king or emperor, who (in stories where it's a husband she'd pleaded for) orders the judge to marry her and then has him executed. All these elements of the story are in Shakespeare's play, but he's redistributed them with his usual infallible instinct for what fits where.

The versions closest to his play are a long (two-part), crowded, rather cumbersome play called Promos and Cassandra, by George Whetstone, which goes back to 1578, and a story in a collection by an Italian writer who used the name Cinthio, a collection that also seems to have provided, whether in the original or in a French translation, the source of Othello. Shakespeare used such collections of stories a good deal: one reason, and we'll see in a moment why it is a reason, is that a lot of the stories are very close to being folk tales; in fact a lot of them are folk tales that the author has picked up somewhere and written out. This play, as most critics recognize, has three well-known folk-tale themes in it: the disguised ruler, the corrupt judge and the bed trick.

If we look at the first of these themes, the disguised ruler, we run into a difficulty that's central to this play. The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, feels that his town is getting morally out of hand, especially in its sexual permissiveness, so he disappears, leaving a subordinate named Angelo to administer a law very strictly providing the death penalty for adultery. Our reactions to this may be very unfavourable to the Duke. Surely he's being a coward when he runs away from his responsibilities, leaving someone else to administer an unpopular and perhaps sick law because he's afraid of spoiling his nice-guy image (at least, that's more or less the explanation he gives); he's being incompetent in putting Angelo in charge instead of his more conscientious and humane colleague Escalus; and he's a sneak to come back disguised as a friar to eavesdrop on the consequences of what he's done. But whether our reactions are right or wrong, they clearly seem to be irrelevant to the play. Why are they irrelevant? We can see that Lear is being foolish when he abdicates, and our knowledge of that fact is highly relevant: what's different here?

I haven't any answer to this right now, except to say that this is a different kind of play: I have first to explain what I think is going on. We saw in King Lear that when the king abdicates, his kingdom is plunged into a lower level of nature, and when Lear has reached the bottom of that, on the heath with the Fool and Poor Tom, he starts to acquire a new kind of relation to his kingdom, where he feels his affinity with the "poor naked wretches" he prays to. Because King Lear is a tragedy, this doesn't get far before Lear is involved with other things, like madness and capture. In Measure for Measure what happens as a result of the Duke's leaving the scene is not that we descend to a lower order of nature, but that we're plunged into a lower level of law and social organization. The Elizabethans, like us, attached great importance to the principle in law called equity, the principle that takes account of certain human factors. Angelo is out simply to administer the law, or rather a law against fornication, according to legalistic rules.

Authority is essential to society, but what we called in King Lear "transcendental" authority, with an executive ruler on top, depends on the ruler's understanding of equity. If he hasn't enough of such understanding, authority becomes a repressive legalism. Legalism of this sort really descends from what is called in the Bible the knowledge of good and evil. This was forbidden knowledge, because, as we'll see, it's not a genuine knowledge at all: it can't even tell us anything about good and evil. This kind of knowledge came into the world along with the discovery of self-conscious sex, when Adam and Eve knew that they were naked, and the thing that repressive legalism ever since has been most anxious to repress is the sexual impulse. That's why a law making fornication a capital offence is the only law the abdicating Duke seems to be interested in.

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Engraving from Galerie des Personnage de Shakespeare, 1844 Engraving from Galerie des Personnage de Shakespeare, 1844 (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)

In the framework of assumptions of Shakespeare's day, one was the doctrine in the New Testament that the law, as given in the Old Testament, was primarily a symbol of the spiritual life. The law in itself can't make people virtuous or even better: It can only define the lawbreaker. You're free of what Paul calls the bondage of the law when you absorb the law internally, as part of your nature rather than as a set of objective rules to be obeyed. Under the "law" man is already a criminal, condemned by his disobedience to God, so if God weren't inclined to mercy, charity and equity as well as justice, nobody would get to heaven. This is what Portia tells Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock symbolizes the clinging to the "bond" of the literal law that was the generally accepted view of Judaism in England at the time. It's a very skewed notion of Judaism, naturally, but there were no Jews legally in England then, and so no one to speak for another point of view. Measure for Measure, I suggested, deals with the same target of narrow-minded legalism, but without the very dubious attachments to assumed Christian and Jewish attitudes. What Jesus attacked in the Pharisees is as common in Christianity as it is anywhere else, and Angelo's breakdown illustrates the fact that no one can observe the law perfectly. Portia's point is repeated by Isabella when she says to Angelo: "Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once" (II.ii. 73).

I've often referred to the ideology of Shakespeare's day, the set of assumptions his audience brought into the theatre with them. Every society has an ideology, and its literature reflects the fact. But I don't think any culture is really founded on an ideology: I think people first of all make up stories, and then extract ideas and assumptions from them. The Christian ideology of Shakespeare's day, as of ours, was a derivation from Christian mythology; that is, the story that Christianity is based on. Our word "myth" comes from the Greek mythos, meaning plot, story, narrative. The Christian myth, the complex of stories it tells, is, we said, structurally closest to comedy. Critics a hundred years ago said that Measure for Measure was a play in which Shakespeare was trying to discuss serious issues like prostitution and the theory of government, but couldn't get far because of censorship and other obstacles. Of course he couldn't have got far with such themes: the assumption is that he wanted to discuss them, and that's an assumption I very much distrust. Other critics think the play is a kind of dramatic exposition of Christian doctrines and principles. I distrust the assumption in that even more. I think Shakespeare uses conceptions taken from the ideology of his time incidentally, and that we always have to look at the structure of the story he's telling us, not at what gets said on the way. That is, as a dramatist, he reflects the priority of mythology to ideology that I've just spoken of. Further, he reflects it increasingly as he goes on. Because of this, his later plays are more primitive than the earlier ones, not, as we might expect, less so. They get closer all the time to folk tales and myths, because those are primitive stories: they don't depend on logic, they don't explain things and don't give you room to react: you have to listen or read through to the end. That's what brings Measure for Measure so close to the romances at the end of Shakespeare's productive period, both in its action and in its mood.

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Well, it's time we got to the second theme, the crooked judge. We saw from A Midsummer Night's Dream how often a comedy begins with some kind of irrational law—irrational in the sense that it blocks up the main thrust of the comic story, which somehow manages to evade or ignore it. Usually such a law is set up to block the sexual desires of the hero and heroine, and sometimes it isn't really a law, but simply the will of a crotchety parent who lays down his law. Sometimes, instead of the law, we start with a mood of deep gloom or melancholy, and that's the main obstacle the comic action has to scramble over. Twelfth Night, for example, begins with Duke Orsino overcome with love melancholy—at least he thinks he is—and Olivia in deep mourning for a dead brother. These elements in comedy are those connected with the corrupt judge theme in Measure for Measure. The ugly law is scowling at us from the beginning, and Angelo's temperament, in both his incorruptible and his later phases, ensures that there will be enough gloom.

Angelo, to do him justice (we can't seem to get away from that word), expresses strong doubts about his fitness for the post. Nonetheless he's put in charge of Vienna, ready to strike wherever sex rears its ugly head. He has a test case immediately: Claudio is betrothed to Julietta (I call her that for clarity), and betrothal in Shakespeare's time could sometimes be a fully marital relation, complete with sexual intercourse. Claudio and Julietta have got together on this basis, but have failed to comply with all the provisions of the law about publicizing the marriage. So he's guilty of adultery, and has to have his head cut off. Lucio, a man about town, is horrified by this, not because he's a person of any depth of human feeling, but because he sees how enforcing such a law would interfere with his own sex life, which is spent in brothels. So he goes (at Claudio's urging, it is true) to Claudio's sister, Isabella, who is almost on the point of becoming a novice in an order of nuns, to get her to plead with Angelo for her brother's life. Isabella is not very willing, but Lucio finally persuades her to visit Angelo, and accompanies her there.

Before this happens, though, there's a broadly farcical scene in which a dimwitted constable named Elbow comes into the magistrate's court presided over by Angelo and Escalus, with a charge against Pompey, who is a pimp and therefore one of the people the newly enforced law is aimed at. The scene seems to be pure comic relief, but it establishes three important points. First, Angelo walks out on the proceedings before long and leaves Escalus to it: his speech on doing so ends with the line "Hoping you'll have good cause to whip them all" (II.i. 136). Angelo despises the people before him so much that he can't bother to listen to their meanderings. The phrase from the Sermon on the Mount, "Judge not, that ye be not judged," comes to mind. What it surely means, among other things, is: If you despise other people for their moral inferiority to yourself, your own superiority won't last long; in fact, it's effectively disappeared already. Second, even Escalus can hardly figure out who did what to whom, so we wonder about the ability of law ever to get hold of the right people, or understand what is really going on about anything. Third, while Claudio, who is a decent man, is going to be beheaded, Pompey, who at least is an avowed pimp (and incidentally quite proud of it), is let off with a warning.

We may notice another feature of the scenes with the bawds: very little is said about the relatively new and then terrifying disease of syphilis; it's clearly in the background, but it stays in the background. "Thou art always figuring diseases in me," says a fellow patron to Lucio, "but … I am sound" (I.ii. 49). That isn't because Shakespeare felt reticent about the subject: if you think he did, take a look at the brothel scenes in Pericles. But to pull down houses of prostitution because of the danger of syphilis would give the law in this play a more rational motive than Shakespeare wants to assign to it. He's no more out to justify the law than to attack it: he merely presents the kind of hold that such law has on society, in all its fumbling uncertainty and lack of direction.

We're ready now for the big scene with Angelo and Isabella. I've suggested to you that when you're reading Shakespeare you might think of yourself as directing a performance, which includes choosing the kind of actors and actresses that seem right for their assigned parts. If I were casting Angelo, I'd look for an actor who could give the impression, not merely of someone morally very uptight, but possessing the kind of powerful sexual appeal that many uptight people have, as though they were leading a tiger on a leash. If I were casting Isabella, I'd want an actress who could suggest an attractive, Page 503  |  Top of Articleintelligent, strongly opinionated girl of about seventeen or eighteen, who is practically drunk on the notion of becoming a nun, but who's really possessed by adolescent introversion rather than spiritual vocation. That's why she seems nearly asleep in the first half of the play.

If the setting of the interview weren't so sombre, with a man's life depending on the outcome, the dialogue would be as riotously funny as the strange case of Elbow's wife. Let's resort to paraphrase. Isabella: "I understand you're going to cut my brother's head off." Angelo: "Yes, that is the idea." Isabella: "Well, I just thought I'd ask. I have to go now; I have a date with a prayer." Lucio: "Hey, you can't do that! Make a production of it; weep, scream, fall on your knees, make as big a fuss as you can!" So Angelo and Isabella start manoeuvring around each other like a couple of knights who are in such heavy plate armour that they can't bend a joint. The effect is that of a sombre Jonsonian comedy of humours. The humours in this case are two forms of predictable virtue, in people paralyzed by moral rigidity. We've already heard Isabella telling a senior nun that she would like her convent to be as strict and rigid as possible; we've heard Angelo saying out of his shell of righteousness:

     'Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
     Another thing to fall.

Isabella goes into general maxims about the beauty of combining strength with gentleness, and Angelo, genuinely bewildered, says: "Why do you put these sayings on me?" (II.ii. 134). But something keeps them going; Isabella gets increasingly interested in her role, another meeting without Lucio is arranged, and eventually the serpent of Eden thrusts itself up between Justice in his black robes and Purity in her white robes, and tells them both that they're naked.

At least, I'm pretty sure that the serpent speaks to them both, although of course it doesn't get through to Isabella's consciousness. Her overt reaction, when she finally understands what Angelo is proposing, is simply horror and outrage. But I wonder if she isn't suppressing the awareness that she's much more attracted to Angelo than she would consciously think possible, and that in her gradual warming-up process Angelo has done more warming than Claudio. However that may be, she goes off to visit Claudio in the prison and tells him that he will now have to die, not to fulfil the demands of the law, but to save his sister's honour, which naturally he will do with the greatest willingness. She's utterly demoralized to discover that Claudio is very unwilling to die, and quite willing to have her go along with Angelo to preserve his life. To paraphrase once again: "But it's my chastity," screams Isabella. "Yes, but it's my head," says Claudio. Isabella then explodes in a furious tirade (in which, incidentally, a Freudian listener would hear a strong father fixation, even though the father does not exist in the play). She pours all the contempt on Claudio that her very considerable articulateness can formulate, tells him that the sooner he dies the better, and even that "I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death" (III.i. 145). She's awakened out of all her dreams, and the world around her that her awakened eyes see is a prison. A real prison, not the dream prison she'd like her convent to be.

So far the action has been fairly unrelieved tragedy for the major characters. The Duke has disappeared. The Friar, not generally known to be the Duke, is a prison chaplain, or seems to be functioning as one. His opening gambit as Friar doesn't seem to have much promise: it's a speech addressed to Claudio, telling him to "be absolute for death," that he should welcome death because if he lives he may get a lot of uncomfortable diseases. It is doubtful that any young man was ever reconciled to immediate death by such arguments: certainly Claudio isn't. The terror of death he expresses to Isabella, in the wonderful speech beginning "Ay, but to die, and go we know not where," shows that the Friar's consolations have left him untouched. Angelo has betrayed his trust; Claudio is about to die; Isabella's dreams of a contemplative spiritual life, free of the corruptions of the world, are shattered forever.

We notice that as we go on we feel less and less like condemning people, because of the steady increase of a sense of irony. We can't condemn Claudio for his fear of what he feels to be, despite Isabella and the Friar, a totally undeserved death; we can't condemn Isabella for turning shrewish when she feels betrayed by both Angelo and Claudio. As for Angelo, he now knows what it's like to fall as well as to be tempted. As almost an incarnation of the knowledge of good and evil, he's in a state of schizophrenic war with himself, the newly born impulse to evil determined on its satisfaction, Page 504  |  Top of Articlethe repudiated impulse to good despising, hating, and being miserably humiliated by its rival. This sense of a dramatic irony replacing an impulse to make moral judgments again points to the limitations of law, or at least of this kind of law.

It was generally accepted in Shakespeare's day that the writing of a play was a moral act, and that the cause of morality was best served by making virtue attractive and vice ugly. Whetstone's play, mentioned earlier, says this in its preface, and Hamlet endorses the same view. No doubt Measure for Measure accomplishes this feat too in the long run, but in the meantime we wonder about the dramatic pictures of virtue and vice that we've had. Angelo is certainly not more likable as a hypocritical fraud than he was in his days of incorruptibility, but he seems somehow more accessible, even more understandable. Perhaps we can see, if we like, that what finally broke him down was not Isabella's beauty, and not even his own powerfully repressed sexuality, but the combining of the two in a sadistic position of authority over a supplicating girl. But Isabella, in her invulnerable virtue, would not be anyone's favourite heroine, and, at the other extreme, there's Lucio, who retains something about him that's obstinately likable, though he's clearly a basket case morally, and Barnardine, whose vitality makes it pleasant that he gets away with his refusal to be beheaded.

In any case, the action in the prison scene reaches a complete deadlock, with Claudio still begging Isabella to do something to help him, and Isabella telling him in effect, in every possible sense, to go to hell. Then the disguised Duke steps forward to speak to Isabella, and the rhythm abruptly switches from blank verse to prose (III.i. 150).

This is the most clearly marked indication of structure, I think, that we've yet reached in any of the plays we've talked about. The play breaks in two here: the first half is the dismal ironic tragedy we've been summarizing, but from now on we're in a different kind of play. One of the differences is that the Duke in disguise is producing and directing it, working out the plot, casting the characters, and arranging even such details as positioning and lighting. So it's really a play within a play, except for its immense size, a half play that eventually swallows and digests the other half. Within the Duke's own conventions, he's playing with real-life people, like those nobles who used to play chess games using their own servants for pieces. In anything like a real-life situation, such a procedure would almost certainly meet with disaster very quickly, like Lear staging his love test. But in Measure for Measure, where we're in the atmosphere of folk tale, our only reaction is to see what comes next. It'll all work out just fine, so don't you worry.

The first element in this new play that the Duke produces is the story of Mariana, who provides a close parallel and contrast to the Claudio situation, and one which involves Angelo. Angelo had previously been engaged to a lady named Mariana, who still loves him, but the engagement fell through because the financial arrangements weren't satisfactory. According to the way the law works things out, Angelo's uncompleted engagement leaves him a person of the highest social eminence, whereas Claudio's uncompleted betrothal leaves him a condemned criminal. So much for the kind of vision the knowledge of good and evil gives us: even if Angelo had remained as pure as the driven snow, the contrast in their fates would still be monstrous. The way the Duke proposes to resolve this situation is the device of the bed trick, where Isabella pretends to go along with Angelo's proposal and assign a meeting, but substitutes Mariana in her place. It sounds like a very dubious scheme for a pious friar to talk a pious novice into, but something in Isabella seems to have accepted the fact that she's in a new ball game, and that the convent has vanished from her horizon.

I've talked about the affinity of this play with folk tales, and we can't go far in the study of folk tale without coming across the figure of the trickster. The trickster may be simply mischievous or malicious, and may be associated with certain tricky animals, like the fox or the coyote. But in some religions the trickster figure is sublimated into a hidden force for good whose workings are mysterious but eventually reveal a deep benevolence. There are traces of this conception in Christianity, where a "providence" is spoken of that brings events about in unlikely and unexpected ways. I don't want to labour the religious analogies, because they're structural analogies only: if we try to make them more than that, they get very misleading. I think the Duke in this play is a trickster figure who is trying to turn a tragic situation into a comic Page 505  |  Top of Articleone, and that this operation involves the regenerating of his society: that is, of course, the dramatic society, the cast of characters. A trickster, because, while tragedy normally rolls ahead to an inevitable crash, comedy usually keeps something hidden that's produced when it's time to reverse the movement.

Let's go back to King Lear and his abdication. I said that when he's reached the bottom of his journey through nature, he discovers a new awareness of the "poor naked wretches" of his kingdom. He abdicates as "transcendental" ruler and takes on another identity in an "immanent" relation to his people, especially the suffering and exploited part of his people. As I said, this theme can't be completed in a tragedy, but a comedy like Measure for Measure can take it a bit further. Duke Vincentio opens up, by leaving his place in society, a train of events headed for the bleakest and blackest tragedy. By his actions in disguise, he brings the main characters together in a new kind of social order, based on trust instead of threats. I'm not talking about the moral of the play, but about the action of the play, where something tragic gradually turns inside out into something comic.

The trickster element in him comes out in the fact that his schemes involve a quite bewildering amount of lying, although he assures Isabella that there's no real deception in what he does. He starts by telling Claudio privately, in the prison, that Angelo is only making trial of Isabella's virtue. He gets Isabella to agree to the bed trick scheme, which necessitates lying on her part; Isbella is told the brutal lie that Claudio has been executed after all; he gives such strange and contradictory orders to Angelo and Escalus about his return that they wonder if he's gone off his head; his treatment of that very decent official, the provost of the prison, would have a modern civil servant heading for the next town to find a less erratic boss. Whenever he remembers to talk like a friar, he sounds sanctimonious rather than saintly. We have only to put him beside Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet to see the difference between a merely professional piety and the real thing.

There are two or three references in the play to frightening images that turn out to be harmless: an induglent father's whip, a row of extracted teeth in a barber shop, and, on the other side, Angelo's "We must not make a scarecrow of the law" (II.i. 1). In this play most of the major male characters are threatened with death in some form; the two women are threatened with the deaths of others. Yet in the long run nobody really gets hurt: even the condemned criminal Barnardine is set free, except that he has another friar attached to him. A pirate in the prison who died of natural causes has his head employed for some of the deceptions, that's all. It's an ancient doctrine in comic theory that one of the standard features of comedy is what's called in Greek the basanos, which means both ordeal and touchstone: the unpleasant experience that's a test of character. This seems to be why the Duke starts off with his "Be absolute for death" speech to Claudio in the prison. He doesn't seriously expect Claudio to be reconciled to death by hearing it, but it leaves him with a vision of seriousness and responsibility for the whole of his life that will make him a proper husband for Julietta and ensure that he doesn't drift off into being another Lucio. Sounds farfetched, but you won't think that an objection by now.

Angelo, of course, gets the bed trick deal, which is a popular device in literature. Shakespeare used it again in a comedy that's usually thought of as a companion piece to this one, All's Well that Ends Well. Even the Bible has such a story, when Jacob, who wanted and expected Rachel, woke up to find Leah in his bed instead. Jacob's society being polygamous, he got them both in the long run, but in Shakespeare's bed trick plays the device is used to hook a man to a woman he ought to be married to anyway. It's one of the devices for the middle part of a comedy, the period of confused identity in which characters run around in the dark, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the heroine puts on a boy's clothes. One thing it represents in the two comedies where it occurs is the illusory nature of lust, in contrast to genuine love. Angelo's lust tells him that he wants Isabella and doesn't want Mariana, but in the dark any partner of female construction will do, and on that basis his wakened consciousness can distinguish between what he wants and what he thinks he wants. For Angelo the bed trick is the agent both of his condemnation and of his redemption. When his deceptions are uncovered in the final scene, he welcomes the death sentence as the only thing appropriate for him: he's still a man of the law, even if his conception of law has matured. Mariana is the spark plug of the second half of the play: without her steady love for Angelo, Page 506  |  Top of Articleno redeeming force could have got started. It nearly always happens in Shakespearean comedy that one of the female characters is responsible for the final resolution. Her importance, I think, is marked by the fact that when we meet her we hear a song, no less, and a very lovely song, in this grim clanking play.

But of course Isabella is the Duke's staged masterpiece. After being instructed how to act, she brings her accusation against Angelo, and there follows a great to-do about not believing her and a stretching of tension to the limit. Eventually Angelo is publicly humiliated, ordered to marry Mariana, and condemned to death immediately afterward. Mariana's pleas for his life are rejected, so she turns to Isabella. Isabella's speech corresponds dramatically to Portia's speech on mercy in The Merchant of Venice, but the latter is a rhetorical set speech: Portia after all is a lawyer, or pretending to be one. Isabella's speech is short, thoughtful, painfully improvised, as the rhythm shows, and full of obvious fallacies as a legal argument. She is also making it at a time when she believes that Angelo has swindled her and had her brother executed after all. The essential thing is that the woman who earlier had told her brother that she would pray a thousand prayers for his death is now pleading for the life of the man who, as she thinks, murdered him, besides attempting the most shameful treatment of herself. People can't live continuously on that sort of level, but if one's essential humanity can be made to speak, even once in one's life, one has a centre to revolve around ever after. The Duke is so pleased that he announces that he is going to marry her, though later he speaks of proposing to her in a private conference.

The final confrontation is with Lucio, and that one is perhaps the strangest of all. Lucio was the spark plug of the first half, as Mariana is of the second: without his efforts on Isabella, all the Duke's schemes would, so far as we can see, have ended in nothing but a dead Claudio. Yet he is the only one of the Duke's characters (apart from Barnardine, whose inner attitude is unknown to us) on whom the Duke's benevolent trickery makes no impression whatever. The Duke transfers to him the penalty he assigned to Angelo: Lucio is to marry the whore he has made pregnant, then executed. The threats of whipping and hanging are ignored by Lucio, and he doesn't seem to notice that they are remitted, but he protests strongly against the violation of his comfortable double standard. He seems to be possessed by a peculiarly shabby version of the knowledge of good and evil. What is "good," or at any rate all right, is what other fashionable young men do. Slandering a prince is all right because it's only the "trick," the fashion; visiting whorehouses likewise. But of course the whores are "bad" women.

And yet the final scene would be much poorer without him: he gets all the laughs, and the Duke's rebukes of him are simply ineffective bluster. He represents in part the sense of vestigial realism that we still have, the part of ourselves that recognizes how unspeakably horrible such snooping and disguised Dukes would be in anything resembling actual life. His slanders are forgiven, perhaps because he was describing the kind of person he would admire more than he does the actual Duke. And while the bulk of what he says is nonsense, one phrase, "the old fantastical Duke of dark corners" (IV.iii. 156) is the most accurate description of him that the play affords.

The title of the play is quoted by the Duke when he speaks of the retribution in the law: "An Angelo for a Claudio, life for life" (V.i. 407). This is the axiom of tragedy, especially revenge tragedy, with its assumption that two corpses are better than one. From there, the action proceeds upward from this "measure for measure" situation to the final scene with which Shakespearean comedy usually ends: the vision of a renewed and regenerated society, with forgiveness, reconciliation and the pursuit of happiness all over the place. Forgiveness and reconciliation come at the end of a comedy because they belong at the end of a comedy, not because Shakespeare "believed" in them. And so the play ends: it doesn't discuss any issues, solve any problems, expound any theories or illustrate any doctrines. What it does is show us why comedies exist and why Shakespeare wrote so many of them. And writing comedies may be more valuable to us than all the other activities together, as we may come to realize after the hindsight of three or four hundred years.

Source: Northrop Frye, "Measure for Measure," in Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, edited by Robert Sandler, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 140-53.

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Bloom, Harold, "Measure for Measure" in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Press, 1998.

Cohen, Stephen, "From Mistress to Master: Political Transition and Formal Conflict in Measure for Measure," in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. 41, No. 4, Fall 1999, pp. 431-64.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Lectures and Notes on Shakspere, edited by T. Ashe, 1818.

Evans, Bertrand, "Like Power Divine: Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare's Comedies, Clarendon Press, p. 219.

Geckle, George L., "Introduction," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Measure for Measure," edited by George L. Geckle, Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 6, 9.

Hazlitt, William, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1817.

Hunt, Maurice, "Being Precise in Measure for Measure," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 58, No. 4, Summer 2006, pp. 243-67.

Johnson, Samuel, Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1765.

Knight, G. Wilson, "Measure for Measure and the Gospels," 1930, revised, 1949, in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Measure for Measure," edited by George L. Geckle, Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp, 36, 49.

Lawrence, W. W., "The Duke from Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, 1931, reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Measure for Measure," edited by George L. Geckle, Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 103-104.

Pope, Elizabeth M., "The Renaissance Background of Measure for Measure," 1949, reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Measure for Measure," edited by George L. Geckle, Prentice-Hall, 1970, pp. 50-72.

Powell, Jocelyn, "Theatrical 'Trompe L'Oeil' in Measure for Measure," in Shakespearean Comedy, edited by Malcolm Bradbury and David Palmer, Edward Arnold, 1972, p. 183.

Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur, and J. Dover Wilson, eds., Measure for Measure, in The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, edited by David Lloyd Stevenson, Cornell University Press, 1966, p. 65.

Shakespeare, William, Measure for Measure, edited by S. Nagarajan, Signet Classics, 1964.

――――――, A Midsummer Night's Dream, edited by Wolfgang Clemen, Signet Classic, 1963, p. 96.

Stevenson, David L., The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, Cornell University Press, 1966, pp. 65, 73, 111.

Zender, Karl F., "Isabella's Choice," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 77-94.


Bennett, Josephine Waters, Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment, Columbia University Press, 1966.

In the context of providing a close reading of the play and an analysis of its characters, Bennett discusses the resemblance of the duke to King James I, for whom the play was written, especially with regard to James's love of diplomacy and manipulating actions from behind the scenes.

Fly, Richard, "Ragozine's Head," in Shakespeare's Mediated World, University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

Fly sees Shakespeare as having created in Measure for Measure a play which attempts a "valid harmonization of opposites" which remain, nevertheless, "unbridgeable differences."

McGinn, Colin, Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays HarperCollins, 2006.

McGinn attempts to discover Shakespeare's philosophy by investigating the themes and philosophical ideas that can be found in the bard' plays.

Rosenbaum, Ron, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups Random House, 2006.

Rosenblum provides a synopsis of the views of leading Shakespeare scholars and directors, and also discusses how an "authoritative" Shakespearean text is constructed.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100026