“Measure for Measure,” a play by William Shakespeare, presents a unique blend of tragedy and comedy, earning its title as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.”
First performed in 1604, this play marks a transition in Shakespeare’s career from comedies and histories to more serious tragedies. Despite its classification as a comedy in the First Folio of 1623, its somber themes align it closely with tragedy.
Set in Vienna, the plot revolves around the Duke, who, under the guise of leaving the city, entrusts its governance to Angelo, a strict enforcer of the law. The Duke, disguised as a friar, secretly remains to observe the unfolding events.
Angelo’s rigorous rule soon leads to the sentencing of Claudio for impregnating Juliet, his betrothed, before marriage. Isabella, Claudio’s sister training as a nun, is persuaded to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo, known for his stoic nature, finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Isabella and offers her a vile bargain: her brother’s freedom for her virginity. Isabella, appalled, refuses.
In a twist, the Duke, still in disguise, orchestrates a plan where Mariana, Angelo’s former fiancée whom he callously abandoned, takes Isabella’s place. Despite this, Angelo orders Claudio’s execution, which is cunningly averted by the Duke.
The climax unfolds at a public hearing upon the Duke’s return. Isabella and Mariana bravely accuse Angelo. The Duke, initially feigning disbelief, reveals his true identity after a scuffle with Lucio, who had accused him of slandering the Duke.
Justice is served in an unconventional manner: Angelo is forced to marry Mariana and is spared from execution through the pleas of Mariana and Isabella. Claudio is reunited with Juliet, while Lucio faces consequences for his actions.
In a final twist, the Duke proposes to Isabella, challenging her religious convictions.
The Duke of Vienna and the play’s protagonist. Known for his virtue and introspective nature, he adopts the disguise of a friar named Lodowick to observe his city’s true state.
Vincentio’s leadership style is marked by subtlety and cunning, preferring to influence events from behind the scenes rather than through direct confrontation.
His actions throughout the play highlight his commitment to justice and his understanding of human nature.
Appointed as the temporary ruler of Vienna by the Duke, Angelo is the play’s antagonist.
Initially respected for his moral integrity and strict enforcement of laws, his character unravels as he succumbs to lust and hypocrisy.
His attraction to Isabella and subsequent coercive actions reveal a stark contrast between his public persona and private desires, showcasing the corrupting influence of power.
Claudio’s sister, a novice nun, and a central figure in the play. Known for her piety and moral steadfastness, Isabella faces a moral dilemma when Angelo offers to spare her brother in exchange for her chastity.
Her character embodies virtue and the struggles women face in a male-dominated society, especially when it comes to issues of sexuality and power.
A comic relief character who frequents both high society and the city’s underbelly. Lucio is known for his wit and tendency to spread rumors.
While he aids Claudio as a messenger, his actions and words throughout the play often exacerbate the chaos and moral decline in Vienna.
His character serves to highlight the societal issues and the lack of moral integrity prevalent in the city.
1. Justice vs. Mercy
At the heart of “Measure for Measure” lies the conflict between justice and mercy. Shakespeare examines the rigid enforcement of laws through the character of Angelo, who represents the harshness of justice without the temperance of mercy.
Conversely, the Duke, in his disguised form, observes and manipulates events from behind the scenes, subtly guiding the characters towards a more merciful resolution.
This theme questions the nature of justice: Should it be absolute and unforgiving, or should it be tempered with compassion and understanding for human frailty?
2. Hypocrisy and Corruption of Power
The play scrutinizes the moral integrity of those in power and exposes their hypocrisy. Angelo, who upholds strict moral standards and harshly judges others, is himself guilty of succumbing to the same temptations he condemns.
His proposition to Isabella highlights the corrupting influence of power and the ease with which one can become morally compromised.
Through this lens, Shakespeare explores how power can distort one’s sense of justice and morality, leading to hypocrisy and the abuse of authority.
3. Sexual Morality and the Role of Women
“Measure For Measure” also tackles issues of sexual morality, particularly focusing on the expectations and treatment of women in a patriarchal society. Isabella’s character is central to this theme.
As a novice nun, she represents purity and religious commitment, yet she finds herself thrust into a world where her chastity is used as a bargaining chip.
The play challenges the societal double standards regarding male and female sexuality and highlights the often oppressive and unfair expectations placed on women. Isabella’s plight and Mariana’s backstory — being jilted by Angelo due to the loss of her dowry — underscore the vulnerabilities and injustices women face, particularly in matters of sexual politics and societal judgment.
“Measure for Measure” is a complex exploration of justice, hypocrisy, and mercy, highlighting the challenges of upholding law and order in a world rife with human flaws and temptations. This blend of dark subject matter and ethical dilemmas renders it a fascinating study of Shakespeare’s evolving artistic direction.