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Measure for Measure (1603-1604)

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English Literature

Do you usually treat others the same way that they treat you? That's the whole idea of 'measure for measure' in a nutshell. It is also the name of one of Shakespeare's problem plays. Measure for Measure is a five-act play first performed in 1604.

AuthorWilliam Shakespeare
Written in1603-1604
First stage performance1604
GenreDramaProblem playDark comedy
FormVerseUnrhymed iambic pentameter
Dramatic devicesMonologueSoliloquyDramatic irony
Literary devicesForeshadowingSymbolismPersonification

Measure for Measure: Summary

Set in Vienna, Measure for Measure is about a man who is sentenced to death for immoral behaviour. The play explores the hypocrisy and corruption of the State.

The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, wants to solve the problem of corruption in the city. He comes up with a clever plan. He pretends that he has to leave on a diplomatic mission and he appoints the strict judge Angelo to act as his deputy. Vincentio disguises as a priest called Friar Lodowick, and he keeps an eye on Angelo.

Claudio makes his fiancee Juliet pregnant. Angelo sentences him to death. Claudio's friend, Lucio, visits Claudio's sister, Isabella, to ask for her help. Angelo gives Isabella an ultimatum - if she loses her virginity to him, he will release Claudio. Isabella wants to become a nun and to remain a virgin. She goes to talk to Claudio in prison. He asks her to sleep with Angelo for him. Isabella refuses. Friar Lodowick (the disguised Duke Vincentio) offers her a solution. His plan involves Angelo's ex-fiancee, Mariana. Mariana and Angelo used to be engaged but he left her before the wedding because her dowry was lost. Isabella meets with Marianna who agrees to help her. Angelo sleeps with Mariana, thinking she's Isabella. However, he doesn't hold his end of the bargain and is still planning to execute Claudio.

Meanwhile, the brothels in Vienna are raided as Angelo attempts to impose a strict moral code on the citizens, while he himself doesn't care for the same. The Provost, who runs the prison, receives Angelo's order to behead Claudio. He sends Angelo the head of another prisoner who has died of fever. Angelo thinks that Claudio has been executed. Friar Lodowick (the disguised Duke Vincentio) knows the truth but he tells Isabella that her brother is dead. He suggests that she talks to the Duke about it when he's back. When the Duke 'returns', Isabella tells him how Angelo has tricked her. The Duke pretends not to believe her. Mariana supports Isabella's story. The Duke disguises as the Friar again and comes forward to confirm what the two women have said. He takes off his disguise and reveals that Friar Lodowick and Duke Vincentio are the same person. The Duke orders Angelo and Mariana to be married immediately. Then, he sentences Angelo to death. Mariana pleads for his life. Isabella shows forgiveness and supports her. Vincentio spares Angelo's life. The Duke reveals that Claudio is alive. At the end of the play, Vincentio asks Isabella to marry him and she doesn't reply.

Measure for Measure: Brief Analysis

Now we will analyse the genre, and the main themes and characters in Measure for Measure.

Genre

Measure for Measure is considered to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays.

'In Shakespearean studies, some of the ‘dark comedies’ are known as problem plays, notably Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. These plays are difficult to classify because their sombre themes and cynical tones contrast oddly with their comedic elements, and the moral issues raised are not satisfactorily resolved. The term was originally applied to these plays by Frederick S. Boas (1862–1957, scholar of early modern drama).'¹

(Oxford Reference)

We can't say that Measure for Measure is only a comedy because the issues are not resolved and not all of the characters have a happy ending. Isabella finds out that she was deceived by the one person she thought she could trust - Friar Lodowick. At the same time, the play is not a tragedy. It includes comedic elements, such as the subplot concerning Lucio and the confusion concerning the Duke's disguise. Claudio is saved in the end and Angelo is exposed. This uncertainty between the two genres makes Measure for Measure a problem play.

Themes

Law and justice

'O, it is excellent

To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous

To use it like a giant.'

-Isabella, Act 2, Scene 2

Isabella confronts Angelo about the way in which he abuses his position of authority.

'Measure for measure' means that one should be treated the same as they have treated others. This is not what happens in the play. The justice system in Vienna is flawed. Ordinary people are persecuted for immoral behaviour while the representatives of the State are not held accountable for the same sins. Claudio is sentenced to death for having sex outside of marriage. Angelo does the same but he thinks that he can get away with it. At the end of the play, just as we think that justice is being served by Duke Vincentio, he himself turns out to be corrupt. When he asks Isabella to marry him, knowing full well that she wants to be a nun, it is revealed that he has twisted things in his favour. Just like Angelo, The Duke is less interested in justice and more interested in his own benefit.

Do you think the play is still relevant today? Some critics say that Measure for Measure exposes the kind of corruption that is still an issue in modern society.

Power, gender and sexuality

'Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.'

- Angelo, Act 2, Scene 4

Angelo says this to Isabella right after he has given her the ultimatum - her virginity for her brother's life. Angelo points out that he's in power and she has no way out because no one would believe her word against his.

The power dynamics in the play are determined by a male-dominated society. The only power that Isabella has in her conflict with Angelo is her own values, onto which she holds. Even if she gave him her body, her mind and spirit would remain pure. However, if the Duke hadn't come to 'save' her chastity with his plan, she would've been powerless and not in control of her own body. Mariana didn't have the power to stop Angelo from leaving her in the past. She only has the power to get him back now, because another man, Duke Vincentio, tells her how to do it. At the end of the play, the Duke reveals his true intentions by asking Isabella to marry him. Although she doesn't reply, we can imagine that she probably doesn't have any choice in the matter. Vincentio is the most powerful man in Vienna. Isabella, whose virginity is more important to her than her brother's life, finds out that she will lose it anyway.

The ending of Measure for Measure can take on different meanings depending on the way that the last scene is staged. In some productions of the play, Isabella's silence shows that she's completely powerless. In other versions, her silence can be interpreted as power - even if the Duke marries her and has her body, her silence will ensure that he never traps her spirit.

What do you think Isabella's silence means? Does it show power or the lack of it?

Forgiveness and mercy

'I sometimes do excuse the thing I hate,

For his advantage that I dearly love.'

- Isabella, Act 2, Scene 4

Here, Isabella begs Angelo to spare Claudio's life. Isabella's view is that while sins are written in stone people can be redeemed and don't necessarily deserve to die for their mistakes.

The play explores the religious meaning of 'measure for measure'. This phrase is taken from the New Testament of the Bible, where the old law of 'measure for measure' is challenged by the Christian value of forgiveness.

Angelo shows no mercy to anyone. He doesn't even keep his promise to Isabella to release her brother. Duke Vincentio judges his citizens for what they have done and punishes them accordingly. He represents 'measure for measure'. After everything that Angelo has put her through, Isabella forgives him and asks the Duke to spare his life. She represents mercy.

Characters

Duke Vincentio

Duke Vincentio is the ruler of Vienna. He makes everyone believe that he has left the city. In reality, he observes them, disguised as Friar Lodowick. The Duke is a wise man who understands human nature. Thanks to him, Claudio's life is saved and Angelo is exposed. However, the Duke is also a great manipulator who gets what he wants in the end.

Angelo

Angelo is a strict judge, appointed by the Duke to serve as his deputy. Angelo is obsessed with morality and he punishes everyone whom he deems immoral. He thinks that he himself can't be tempted until he meets Isabella. Angelo knows that he shouldn't give in to his lust for her but he does it anyway. He shows no mercy to others for the crimes that he himself is guilty of.

Isabella

Isabella is a novice nun. She's Claudio's sister and wants to save his life. When Angelo gives her the ultimatum to exchange her virginity for her brother, she refuses. Her chastity is more important to her than her brother's life. Isabella agrees with the Duke’s plan to trick Angelo to sleep with Mariana. However, in the end, she shows mercy to Angelo and saves his life. Isabella trusts Friar Lodowick only to find out that he is actually the Duke who has deceived her.

Claudio

Claudio is Isabella's brother. He is sentenced to death by Angelo because he has made his fiancee, Juliet, pregnant before their wedding. Claudio asks Isabella to lose her virginity to Angelo so that she can save his life. In the end, Claudio is released from prison and reunited with Juliet.

Lucio

Lucio is Claudio's friend. He's not ashamed of his life of debauchery. Lucio asks for Isabella's help to save Claudio. He accidentally insults the Duke when he doesn't know he's talking to him. The Duke holds a grudge against Lucio. He makes him marry the prostitute he's made pregnant.

Marianna

Marianna is Angelo's ex-fiancee. He left her when her dowry was lost but she's still in love with him. Marianna agrees to help Isabella and to sleep with Angelo, so that she could finally marry him.

How has Measure for Measure influenced culture today?

Measure of Measure is an influential play that has been translated into many languages. It discusses issues of morality, justice and corruption that are still relevant today. Over the years, the drama has been interpreted and adapted in many different ways.

Did you know that there's a musical based on Measure for Measure?

Desperate Measures (2004) is set in the American Old West.

Measure for Measure (1603-1604) - Key takeaways

  • Measure for Measure is a five-act play by William Shakespeare that was first performed in 1604.
  • Set in Vienna, Measure for Measure is about a man who is sentenced to death for immoral behaviour. The play explores the hypocrisy and corruption of the State.

  • Measure for Measure is considered to be one of Shakespeare's problem plays. The play doesn't fall into the category of comedy or tragedy. The issues that it brings up are not resolved in a typical comic or tragic fashion.

  • The main themes in the play are: Law and justice, Power, gender and sexuality, Forgiveness and mercy.

  • The main characters in Measure for Measure are: Duke Vincentio, Angelo, Isabella, Claudio, Lucio, Marianna.


_________

¹Oxford Reference, 2022, oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100347336

Measure for Measure (1603-1604)

Measure for Measure by Shakespeare is about a man who is sentenced to death for immoral behaviour. The play explores the hypocrisy and corruption of the State.

Measure for Measure is set in Vienna.

The message of Measure for Measure is not to judge others for the same things that we do. 

Measure for Measure is based on The Story of Epitia (1565) by Cinthio, on Promos and Cassandra (1578) by George Whetstone, and on Biblical references.

Final Measure for Measure (1603-1604) Quiz

Question

Who does Duke Vincentio appoint as his deputy?

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Answer

Angelo

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Question

Where is Measure for Measure set?

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Answer

Vienna

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Question

Duke Vincentio disguises as....?

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Answer

Friar Lodowick

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Question

Who is Angelo's ex-fiancee?

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Answer

Mariana

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Question

True or False: At the end of the play, Isabella becomes a nun.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or False: Claudio is beheaded.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or False: Angelo wants to trade Isabella's virginity for her brother's life.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or False: Measure for Measure is a problem play.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT one of the main themes in Measure for Measure?

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Answer

 Love and romance

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Question

True or False: The justice system in Measure for Measure's Vienna is flawed.

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Answer

True.

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Question

True or False: Isabella loses her virginity to save Claudio's life.

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Answer

False.

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Question

True or False: 'Measure for measure' means that one should be treated the same as they have treated others.

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Answer

 True.

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Question

Which character represents mercy?

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Answer

Isabella

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Question

Which character accidentally insults Duke Vincentio?

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Answer

Lucio

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Question

True or False: Angelo left Mariana when her dowry was lost.

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Answer

True.

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