Commentary

Measure for Measure is a dark play in its focus on evil and its seemingly cynical attitude towards two basic human concerns, sex and the ordering of society. These elements place it among the Problem Plays, and like its fellows, Troilus and Cressida and All's Well That Ends Well, it has generally been among the least popular of Shakespeare's plays during almost four centuries, though they have all increased in popularity during our troubled age. Nevertheless, although its subject matter may have more appeal in the 20th century, the play continues to dissatisfy many readers and viewers. As in the other problem plays, the realistic characters do not readily mesh with the artificial plot or with the happy ending and marriages traditional in Comedy. 

As a Tragicomedy, Measure for Measure purposefully combines tragic development with a comic resolution, utilizing irony to distance the story line; this technique emphasizes the play's symbolic significance. The play addresses its issues—questions of good government and personal morality—through teachings from the Bible, though in a highly secular context. When this is taken into consideration. Measure for Measure may seem the least problematic of the problem plays, for its elements then cohere in a convincing manner to justify the traditional happy ending in marriage. 

The play's title refers to Christ's Sermon on the Mount, 'measure for measure' being a well-established proverbial abridgement of one of its lessons. In Matt. 7:2 and Luke 6:38 (and in Mark 4:24, in the context of a different sermon) we are taught to use a full, unstinting measure in distributing grain to others, for we shall receive measures in the same way that we distribute them. This lesson was commonly used by preachers and religious books of Shakespeare's day. On a particular Sunday, the version in Luke was by rule the subject of the sermon in all English churches. Thus, we can be sure that Shakespeare was familiar with the text that the proverbial expression referred to, and he could presume that his audience was, too. (He had, in fact, used 'measure for measure' before, in 3 Henry VI, 2.6.55 and King John, 2.1.556-557.) 

In Luke and Matthew the 'measure for measure' passages are closely linked to Christ's important pronouncements on the doctrine of Christian forgiveness. The proverb insists on such forgiveness, for only by practicing mercy can one expect to receive it. In the play, Angelo's lack of mercy is strikingly compared with Isabella's pleas for it, especially when she seeks mercy for Angelo himself, in 5.1. The biblical passages also contain the familiar instruction not to judge others lest you incur judgment, another lesson in reciprocation. Both ideas were specifically linked with the exercise of power, as well as with personal ethics, by 16th- and 17th-century English Bible commentators. Measure for Measure is particularly concerned with the proper exercise of power, at least with respect to the administration of justice; a good ruler, the Duke, uncovers and punishes a bad one, Angelo. 

The subject was appropriate in 1604 when Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure. The duties of a Christian ruler were being widely discussed in London, for England had a new king, James I, who was interested in theological matters and had raised the issue himself. In the 17th century it was believed that a ruler's authority came from God, and a good ruler was expected to attempt to be like God injustice and mercy alike. Because of this relationship, it was almost universally held, a ruler was exempted from the prohibition against vengeance and the exaction of punishment. The ruler was specifically required to use his power to punish wrongdoers, not only to preserve social order but to act as God's weapon in the fight against evil. As such, the ruler could use extraordinary methods that might in others be immoral. Thus, the Duke's disguise and other deceptions, including the bed trick, were entirely acceptable to Shakespeare's audiences. Similarly, the Duke's position justifies his attempts to circumvent the rulings of Angelo, who as a ruler's deputy is also God's appointee. This point is clearly made in the play when the Provost refuses to act against Angelo until the disguised Duke produces a letter indicating that the 'friar' acts for the supposedly absent Duke. 

Christian interpretations of the play can be highly literal—some critics have found in it an allegory of divine atonement, in which Angelo is an Everyman figure and the Duke represents Christ, Lucio the Devil, and Isabella the soul. In a more general sense, many commentators have seen Isabella as a particularly Christian figure in her desire to be a nun, her adamant chastity, and her ultimate mercy. However, one need not view the play as purposeful religious doctrine, though it plainly reflects Christian sentiments. Shakespeare's other plays are distinctly not allegorical or sermonizing, and Measure for Measure does not resemble traditional allegory, for most of its characters are believable human beings set in a socially realistic world. The play is easily understood as a traditional secular comedy whose themes have been drawn from a prominent Christian text. 

The specifically Christian nature of the play's issues did not have to be raised; the playwright expected his audience to take these ideas for granted and go on to consider their application to the rather grim sex scandal being enacted. As a tale of official misconduct, the play evoked one aspect of the Christian lesson; through its presentation of human psychology a more personal application could be considered. Measure for Measure vividly offers both, and in both contexts the final lesson is the same: the power of good (in the form of Christian charity, as stressed by the title) can effect a reconciliation that untangles all plots, rights all wrongs, and leads to marital happiness, just as surely as does secular love in the traditional comedic mode. 

As a play on the misuse of authority, Measure for Measure opposes two different sorts of bad government, an arrangement appropriate to its title. The Duke's administration of justice prior to the play has been too lax, as he himself admits, saying, '. . . Liberty plucks Justice by the nose, / The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum. / . . . 'twas my fault to give the people scope . . .' (1.3.29-35). It is to rectify this situation that the Duke has transferred his authority to Angelo, but the deputy proves to be the opposite sort of bad governor. He is uncompromisingly strict and cannot apply mercy where it is appropriate, that is, in Claudio's case. The Duke's lax government is also represented in the comic subplot by Escalus' release of Pompey. Thus the long comic 'trial' scene featuring Constable Elbow results in freedom for a career pimp, while Claudio, an honorable young man who wishes only to become a husband and father, is still condemned to death. The consequences of the dramatic situation are more extreme than in Shakespeare's other comedies. Angelo's intention towards Isabella is quite simply rape (and he believes he carries it out); then he further blackens himself by going back on his word, and Claudio is very nearly killed.  

The remedy begins with the Duke's idea to monitor Angelo, which he actually adopts before the play opens. Significantly, the ruler takes on a religious role.  He disguises himself as a friar, thus stressing the divinity of authority. The result, in addition to the preservation of Isabella's honor and Claudio's life, is the emphasis on the Duke's mercy and forgiveness at the play's close. This denouement might seem exaggerated to modern sensibilities but is utterly fitting to a proper ruler in the world of the play. 

In terms of human psychology, the play places Angelo and Isabella in opposition. Angelo's inexcusable refusal of mercy stems from an excess of zeal for the rule of law. This position is related to his notion of himself as a virtuous public servant, one who is beyond examination because he is dutiful. In this Angelo is contrasted with the Duke, who acknowledges his failings and investigates his own government. Because Angelo has not questioned himself, he cannot see the humanity in Claudio, as Isabella points out.  His stiff assumption of virtue deprives him of the capacity for best judgment. Moreover, so confident is he in his own rightness that he is entirely incapable of resisting lust—though he wishes to—when it arises. 

The heroine, like the villain, is strictly virtuous. Not only is she prepared to enter a nunnery, she regrets that its rules are not strict enough. Like Angelo, she insists that her own ideas about life be applied to others, 'wishing a more strict restraint / Upon the sisters stood' (1.4.4-5) and demanding that Claudio •Take my defiance, [and] Die, perish!' (3.1.142-143). Her assertiveness, while attractive in its bold spirit, is uncharitable, also proving Isabella an unlikely nun. Thus, we need not be surprised when she accepts the Duke's proposal of marriage at the close; once her enthusiasm has been allied with a forgiving tolerance she can adopt a more natural destiny than seclusion from the world. 

The stiff, unyielding attitudes of the two chief characters establish the play's major conflict. This quality is fittingly expressed in the play's general atmosphere, for all of Acts 2 and 3 and much of Act 4 take place within a prison or courthouse, and of the nine remaining scenes, three take place in the Friar's cell or the nunnery and one in Mariana's 'moated grange' (3.1.265), a doubly isolated place, both rustic and fortified. Four more scenes (1.1,2; 4.4,6) are in nondescript locales, but they are all distinctly anxious in tone; only the final scene of reconciliation (5.1) takes place in a setting of openness and freedom—'at the gates' (4.4), the site of the Duke's ceremonious re-entry of Vienna. 

The play's comic sub-plot both reinforces the claustrophobic atmosphere and relieves it. The shady world of Pompey, Lucio, and Mistress Overdone deals with similar themes as the main plot—sex and criminal justice—but contrasts with it greatly in tone, being bawdy about sex and jocularly dismissive of the courts. The tension of Claudio's fate is thus relaxed, but at the same time the sub-plot offers a dark view of Vienna's civic life that supports a sense of imminent doom. The jesting on venereal disease by Lucio and his friends in 1.2, Mistress Overdone's assertion that Lucio has betrayed her, and the association of Pompey with the executioner Abhorson all contribute to our growing recognition that these humorous figures do not represent an idyllic world of irresponsibility but rather an unpleasant one of commercialized sex and a collapse of values. 

In the main story the conflict between Angelo and Isabella becomes unbearably tense. Claudio pleads with Isabella to sin and save him and she denounces him hysterically; by 3.1 it seems painfully clear that either Isabella must break or Claudio must die. The nature of the play changes at this point. No longer an enactment of  psychological tension and moral extremism, it becomes a symbolic representation of the power of reconciliation to produce harmony and love where strife had been. The presence of the disguised Duke suggests such an outcome from the beginning.  With a balance that is reflected in the title, the second half of the play counters the first. The Duke takes control of the plot, and Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio become much less important. The highly expressive poetry of the first half is replaced by a more mundane mixture of poetry and prose, and the aura of impending tragedy becomes ironic comedy. Through his somewhat absurd plotting, the Duke replaces punishment and death with pardons and marriages. While this development often strikes modern readers as silly, it was for Shakespeare's original audiences a recognizable variant on traditional comedy as well as on medieval Morality Plays, which generally centered on an undeniable sinner who is forgiven. In Shakespeare's world the fact that Angelo's crime is exceptionally dreadful suggests strongly that he will be forgiven, particularly in light of the play's title. 

However, the power of Shakespeare's realistic portrayals of Angelo and Isabella in the first half of the play made a significant change in his source material necessary. In all the variants of the tale the playwright saw, the Angelo figure had his way with the Isabella figure, and then, in the final resolution, was forced to marry her in order that her honor could be restored. However, given the psychological strength with which the two characters have earlier been invested, they simply cannot be made to accept each other without losing their power to move an audience, and much of the play's power also. Mariana therefore replaces Isabella through the use of the bed trick, an ancient comedic device that Shakespeare also used in All's Well. Here, the Duke's unquestioned authority makes it seem a less squalid device, though like a dens ex machina, this coup de theatre disposes of the impending tragedy with an ease and convenience that is troubling to modern sensibilities. However, in Shakespeare's day this conclusion was perfectly acceptable, the triumph of good had been made explicit in a manner that was satisfying to the sentimental feelings of his audiences. 

Mariana also triggers the sequence of pardons in 5.1 by pleading for Angelo's life. More important, she persuades Isabella to join her. Mariana's plea is essentially selfish—she wishes to preserve the husband she has so long sought. Isabella's intercession is, however, more objective; indeed, it goes against her natural enmity towards the man who is her intended rapist and the apparent killer of her brother. The Duke points <his out when he says, 'Her brother's ghost . . . would . . . take her hence in horror' (5.1.433-434). But Isabella not only kneels in support of Mariana's plea—which is as much as Mariana asked—but goes on to make a reasoned case for mercy towards her tormentor. Her act flies in the face of common sense, just as does Christ's command in the Sermon on the

Mount to love one's enemies. Whether under the influence of Mariana's example of love, or because she remembers her claim to Angelo that she would be merciful if she had his power, or, perhaps, to make up for her willingness to sacrifice Claudio for a principle, Isabella has arrived at the giving of a full measure in the spirit of the text that inspired the play's title. 

Thus the play yields a satisfactory outcome on its own terms, those of Christian moral doctrine presented in the form of traditional comedy. The drama is one of ideas, rather than real life. However, Shakespeare's strengths as a dramatist actually diminish this effort, for the psychological and social realism of the play combine to smother the spiritual aura that might otherwise make the play's message more dramatically effective. In the later Romances, Shakespeare more successfully combines the symbolic and the real. Like All's Well That Ends Well— which it resembles in many ways—Measure/or Measure charts the playwright's evolution from a master of personal and societal portraiture towards a more ethereal, intellectual drama.  While it is not a successful example of the genre, it marks a significant experiment in its of development.

 

To view other Measure for Measure sections:

Main Play Page     Play TOC    Scene by Scene Synopsis    Character Directory      Commentary

 

To view the other Plays click below:

By  Comedies    Histories    Romances    Tragedies

All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Loves Labour's Lost Loves Labour's Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale

 

To view other Shakespeare Library sections:

Biography     Plays     Poems     Sonnets     Theaters     Shake Links 

 

 
Send mail to jciccarelli@hudsonshakespeare.org with questions or comments about this web site.
[Home]  [Upcoming Shows]  [HSC Venues]  [Past Productions]  [Articles] [HSC Programs]
 [Shakespeare Library] [Actor Resources]   [Contact Us]  [Links]  [Site Map]