Measure for Measure

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Measure for Measure

Is Sexual Harassment a modern issue?,  Perhaps not.  Centuries before office sexual battles became headline fodder, Shakespeare penned the complicated story of an ordinary man, Angelo who is suddenly thrust into a position of power and abuses his new authority by taking advantage of Isabella, a strong willed woman who tries to free her brother of unjust sentence.  Set in Renaissance Vienna, the city resembles the Times Square of the 1970's as it is overrun with brothels, gambling dens, and thieves.  Duke Vincentio has let things slip and wants to enforce old laws that will clean up the city.  However, he wonders if the old laws might be too stringent and wants to see what affect they will have.  He pretends to leave the city and places his deputy Angelo in charge in his absence.  Angelo is the hard office worker but never has a management position.  He takes to his new position with the same hard working zeal and follow the letter of each law,  Brothels and other disreputable establishments close, but he also arrests Claudio, a young man who has impregnated his fiancÚ Juliet prior to marriage.  Though they are betrothed, the act of premarital sex is enough to have him condemned to death.  Claudio implores his sister Isabella, who is preparing to enter a convent, to argue for mercy on his behalf.  Angelo, taken with this feisty woman, agrees to free her brother but first Isabella must sleep with him.  Isabella is left with the dilemma of saving her brother's life while maintaining her religious convictions.  The Duke remains to overview Angelo's proceedings disguised as a friar.       

The play's first appearance in print in the First Folio of 1623

Measure was written in 1604 and based on Epitia, a story found in the broader work Hecatommithi written by Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio.   The larger work is also the basis for Othello, which was written directly prior to Measure.  In the 19th century, the play was grouped with Troilus and Cressida and All's Well That Ends Well as Problem Plays, because they defied easy genre classification.  Today these plays would be called Black Comedies, taking a perverse or slanted look at their subjects within the background of comedy.  While there are many comic situations, characters and subplots dealing with the characters of Pompey, Lucio and Mistress Overdone and the play has a typical happy ending with several couples getting married, the motivations and actions of many characters leave much to be desired.  An ineffectual Duke has let his city slip into crime and places an inexperienced subordinate to take the heat for unpopular laws needed to correct the problem.  Angelo, drunk on his new power, willingly seeks to defile a nun, and renege on his promise by having her brother killed anyway.  Isabella placing her conviction over her brother's life and so on.  The play examines tough choices dealt by tough people and circumstances and seeks to ask "What would you do?" 

More than any other of Shakespeare's plays, Measure examines the subject of Christian forgiveness over the near jerk reaction of revenge.  Playing on its title, 'measure for measure' is taken from a bible passage playing on the 'Eye for an Eye' philosophy that says only by practicing forgiveness can you look to receive it.  A popular theory is that Measure was written in honor of James I, who has recently ascended the throne, as he often liked to go among his subjects disguised as one of them to gather a point of view not usually obtained by a king. The play first appeared in print in 1623 in the First Folio and its first recorded performance was a show at the King James I court in Christmas 1604.   Throughout it's history, it has never been one of the more popular plays, but has gathered a receptive following in recent decades with characters that seem very modern and commentary on working situations that Shakespeare may never have thought of.

Click on the left hand bar or the links below to see the Play Text either as in full page or scene by scene; a Directory of Characters with extensive descriptions and backgrounds; a Scene by Scene Synopsis of the play; and an extensive Commentary on the show.  


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To view other Measure for Measure sections:

   Main Play Page    Play Text    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


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