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Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure was an oft-ignored play until recently, and if it was performed during the latter 17th centuries and through the 18th and 19th centuries, it was significantly rewritten/adapted to make it unrecognizable. In part, the goal of subsequent productions was to do away with the moral ambiguity and discomfort that pervades Measure for Measure. Subsequent critics have labeled this a problem play, and I want to explore what that means in our class today. Why do we find the generic label of comedy so unfitting for this particular text? Is “problem play” the best designation for Measure for Measure? I selected this play precisely because of the sense of unease both in the play and in our responses to it. The title is from the Book of Matthew: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For … the measure you give will be the measure you get” (7:1–2). From your reading for today, does this Christian frame make sense? Or is religion (and posing as a religious figure) less straightforward? Unlike As You Like It, the deus ex machina of this play will be a human agent, the Duke, who has pretended to be a friar throughout the plot. We might read that as a bit problematic (it’s never good in Shakespeare’s works to pose as religiously inclined; recall Richard III between the two bishops and Ophelia with the religious verses walking in the gallery). Although eventually successful in her pleas, Isabella’s religious identity is also presented as a problem in the play, an inflexibility that has little traction or safety in the city of Vienna.   

For our frame for this play, I want us to think about institutions and how they are open to corruption, misinterpretation, and of course, abuse. And I don’t want us to shy away from reading this play in our contemporary moment. I asked you to read  “The Very Modern Anger of Shakespeare’s Women” by Laura Kolb, and I hope you’ll bring in the article and other material/discourses in our discussion. Because, of course, sexual violence against women is not new, it is interesting how Shakespeare explores the psychology of both the victim and perpetrator in this narrative, giving us an intimate look at the structures of power, recourse to legal protection, and issues of consent that are so relevant today. Shakespeare, in other words, gives us a particular frame and language for considering the victimization of women, so hauntingly captured in Angelo’s line, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” (2.4.155). In this play, women are given little agency to protest the patriarchal abuse of power, and they must resort to folkloric tricks (i.e., the bed-trick) in order to expose Angelo. Nonetheless, that plan is orchestrated by the Duke himself, and relies on the acquiescence of another women whom Angelo has harmed, Mariana. In our class today, we are going to explore how the women in particular are subject to institutional regulation, despite the fact that it is a man, Claudio, who is under immediate threat of the law’s power.

There is a sense of disregard for the rules of religion in this play. As Lucio jokes, “Grace is grace, despite of all controversy” (1.2.24-25). He is referring to the animosity between Catholics and Protestants. Isabella, remember, is a novitiate to the Order of St. Clare. For Shakespeare’s Protestant audiences, this would have had a very charged, specific meaning. Isabella is joining a convent in which she will no longer be available sexually to others, though as we shall see, that desire on her part is thwarted. But because she is not yet a member, she is able to speak on the behalf of Claudio, and to still engage in the world. The conflict between cloistered and free women is one that haunts Measure for Measure: Mariana is tucked away in a “moated grange,” while Mistress Overdone and her women are initially ousted from their own homes/places of business.

The Duke, investing power in Angelo to enact the law in Vienna, aims for Angelo to practice both strict justice and mercy: “Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart” (1.1.45-46). But the problem is that Angelo is extreme, and he becomes in the course of the play a tyrant. His punishment against Claudio is particularly cruel. Claudio and Juliet have been contracted to marry but not formally undergone a ceremony. Because Juliet is pregnant with Claudio’s child, however, Claudio is to be punished for adultery. He is the scapegoat for Angelo’s new program of purging Vienna of vices.

Claudio [to the Provost]:        Fellow, why dost thou show me thus to the 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 offense, by weight,

                                                The words of heaven. On whom it will, it will;

                                                On whom it will not, so; yet still ’tis just. (1.2.116-123).

I suspect that Claudio says this last term, “jest,” bitingly. Not only is he to be executed for consensual sex with his finance, but he must be paraded around the city. Admittedly, Vienna is ripe with vices. This play shares with the Henry IV plays in its boisterous representation of prostitutes, bawds, and clowns. The gentlemen joke among themselves about sexually transmitted diseases, and few are free from the sexual license that runs amok in the city. So few are free, indeed, that one is only safe if cloistered, as Isabella attempts to do when she wishes to become a nun.

            But to rectify the rampant vice in the city, the Duke concocts a malicious bit of stage-acting. Many scholars and theater-goers have noted the manipulation inherent in the Duke: although his purposes are ostensibly good, his trick and his need to observe the events from a distance might also rub us the wrong way. Let’s look at his justification for pretending to leave Vienna and posing as a friar:

Duke:              We have strict statutes and most biting laws,

                        The needful bits and curbs to headstrong steeds,

                        Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,

                        Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave

                        That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,

                        Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch

                        Only to stick it in their children’s sight

                        For terror, not to use, in time the rod

                        Becomes more mocked than feared, so our decrees,

                        Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;

                        And liberty plucks justice by the nose,

                        The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart

                        Goes all decorum.

Friar Thomas:  It rested in Your Grace

                        To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleased;

                        And it in you more dreadful would have seemed

                        Than in Lord Angelo.

Duke:              I do fear, too dreadful.

                        Sith ’twas my fault to give the people scope,

                        ’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them

                        For what I bid them do; for we bid this be done

                        When evil deeds have their permissive pass

                        And not the punishment. Therefore indeed, my father,

                        I have on Angelo imposed the office,

                        Who may in th’ambush of my name strike home,

                        And yet my nature never in the fight

                        To do in slander. And to behold his sway

                        I will, as ’twere a brother of your order,

                        Visit both prince and people. (1.3.19-45).

Just as Angelo requires a scapegoat to prove his power, so too does the Duke need one to deflect blame for strictness away from himself. For all of his protestations that he does not love to show himself to the people, the Duke cares very much about the peoples’ opinion of him. The Duke also claims that this is a type of social experiment. He will test the very mettle of those who are gifted with power: “Hence shall we see, / If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (1.3.53-54).

            On the surface, Angelo’s strictures do make sense. He identifies the same problem as the Duke, in which too much leniency has allowed for the proliferation of pimps and criminals. But just as we saw in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare cautions against absolutism in any form. Angelo may argue for the justice of his actions, but Escalus represents the voice of tempered mercy and loving forgiveness to Vienna’s criminals:

Angelo:           We must not make a scarecrow of the law,

                        Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,

                        And let it keep one shape till custom make it

                        Their perch and not their terror.

Escalus:           Ay, but yet

                        Let us be keen and rather cut a little

                        Than fall and bruise to death. (2.1.1-6).

In this, however, Angelo is misguided because he directs his ire at a single individual, Claudio, rather than the large cohort of misbehavers in Vienna. These include Pompey and Mistress Overdone. Pompey in particular revels in his misdeeds, and the nominal justice in the city, Elbow, is ill-equipped to match the clever criminal intellect of Pompey.

            The problem is that the law in Vienna is attempting to control the private matters of the bedchamber. Does the law have the right, this play asks, to police sex? The pimp Pompey puts the matter in its most commonsensical frame:

Pompey:          Does Your Worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?

Escalus:           No, Pompey.

Pompey:          Truly, sir, in my poor opinion they will to’t then. (2.1.229-231).

This is a play so focused on a pregnant body, and Pompey illustrates an important insight into the human condition. Regardless of what legal (and divine) strictures are placed upon humans, they will still possess desire and continue to engage in sex.

            Speaking of Pompey, Measure for Measure does something a bit different than the other plays we have seen thus far—it readily mixes the high and the low in society. We saw in Julius Caesar the plebeians enter and be swayed by rhetoric, but they were still not allowed to address the patricians directly, to speak to them on their level. Even in the comedies we have read, the servants and lower classes are set apart from the others, there to amuse and comment on human foibles, but not engaged in the gritty business of human concourse that we see in Measure for Measure. The play only works if we acknowledge the mixture of what director Peter Brooks refers to as the “Holy and the Rough.” These two elements are brought together so intimately in this play, so that elisions between the two occur quite readily. Isabella, the Holy, is threatened to become the Rough through Angelo’s proposition. Claudio, her brother, has engaged in behavior that, albeit with the intent to marriage, nonetheless is not too distant from the business of Mistress Overdone and the prostitute Kate Keepdown that Lucio has impregnated. What is the effect of bringing these boisterous city characters to the play?

            One answer might be generic. Although Measure for Measure is often termed a problem play, there is another genre that it might be closer to—the city comedy. Ben Jonson, another playwright during Shakespeare’s day, wrote many of them, along with other authors such as Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, and others. The premise of the city comedy is to depict events in the bustling city atmosphere, usually though not always in London. As Jonson describes it in the opening to The Alchemist:

            Our Scene is London, ’cause we would make known,

            No country’s mirth is better than our own.

            No clime breeds better matter, for your whore,

            Bawd, squire, imposter, many persons more.

Of course, Measure for Measure takes place in Vienna, not London. But the play feels very London-like, and the bustling, hurried sense of sexual trafficking might remind Shakespeare’s audiences of the houses of sale on the same side of the Thames as the theaters.

The idea of deputation is a perplexing one in the play. The Duke has determined to make Angelo his regent of sorts while he mysteriously departs from Vienna. The Duke asks the equally-qualified Escalus if he thinks Angelo a good choice:

            What figure of us think you he will bear?

            For you must know, we have with special soul

            Elected him our absence to supply,

            Lent him our terror, dressed him with our love,

            And given his deputation all the organs

            Of our own power. What think you of it? (1.1.17-22).

Why does the Duke pose so many questions? Is there hesitancy in his choice? Or does he rather wish for Escalus’ vehement agreement with him? Importantly, however, the Duke has given Angelo not only the power to enact the law, but to interpret it. As he tells Angelo, “Your scope is as mine own, / So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (1.1.65-67). The law, for the Duke, is not absolute; rather, it can be interpreted and enforced to varying degrees based on the specific case at hand.

            Continually, Angelo is described as a type of automaton. Lucio claims his “blood / Is very snow broth” (1.4.57-58). So too, many attempt to convince Angelo that he is indeed a man, one who might like Claudio commit the same sin. As Escalus begs him to consider:

            Let but Your Honor know,

            Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue,

            That, in the working of your own affections,

            Had time cohered with place, or place with wishing,

            Or that the resolute acting of your blood

            Could have attained th’effect of your own purpose,

            Whether you had not sometime in your life

            Erred in this point which now you censure him,

            And pulled the law upon you. (2.1.8-16).

In other words, haven’t you too, Angelo, ever succumbed to lust? If given the opportunity, wouldn’t you also indulge in the very basic human need for sex? Isabella uses the same charge to Angelo: “If he had been as you, and you as he, / You would have slipped like him; but he, like you, / Would not have been so stern” (2.2.69-71).

Isabella is a curious heroine. On the one hand, she is smart and principled. On the other, her very adherence to a principle of chastity is so absolute that it might read as too strident. In an odd parallel, she and Angelo are similar in their (initial) strictness of behavior. As a prospective nun, Isabella is virginal and innocent, and when we look at Angelo’s attempting wooing of her we will notice how slow she is to grasp his meaning. Claudio believes that his sister will be his best advocate because of her beauty and innocence:

            For in her youth

            There is a prone and speechless dialect

            Such as move men; beside, she hath prosperous art

            When she will play with reason and discourse,

            And well she can persuade. (1.2.179-183).

As we shall see, however, Angelo is immune to Isabella’s reasoning, which rests on the Christian notion of mercy and forgiveness. Isabella is unable to move in this world of double-speak and hidden intentions. When she questions the nun Francisca about the Order, she wishes not for freedom, but for more impositions: “I speak not as desiring more, / But rather wishing a more strict restraint / Upon the sisterhood, the votaresses of Saint Clare” (1.4.3-5). There is a masochistic element to Isabella, as when she employs the incredible image of undergoing bodily torture rather than yield up her body:

            That is, were I under the terms of death,

            Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies,

            And strip myself to death as to a bed

            That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield

            My body up to shame. (2.4.100-104).

We should admire Isabella’s devotion to her beliefs, though they also wax extreme. As she asserts to herself, “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die; / More than our brother is our chastity” (2.4.185-186). We have to admit that the moral question raised here is a difficult one, and Isabella’s decision, though admirable, also means that she is distanced from us to a degree. It is all the more emotionally distant when we consider Claudio’s moving plea for life:

            Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,

            To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,

            This sensible warm motion to become

            A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit

            To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

            In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

            To be imprisoned in the viewless winds

            And blown with restless violence round about

            The pendent world; or to be worse than worst

            Of those that lawless and incertain thought

            Imagine howling—’tis too horrible!

            The weariest and most loathed worldly life

            That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment

            Can lay on nature is a paradise

            To what we fear of death. (3.1.119-133).

What do you make of this speech? Who does Claudio sound like here?

2.2 Analysis

I want us to undertake a close-reading of Act 2, Scene 2, starting at line 30, which dilates the many issues of sex, feminine agency, law, and institutional power in the exchange between Isabella and Angelo. We will go through this slowly, seeking to understand the psychological movement of the scene. When do we notice Angelo’s shift? Are Angelo and Isabella speaking the same language? What is dramatic about this scene?

2.4 Analysis

Now, I want you to take the same skills we’ve just practiced and, in small groups, look at 2.4.51-to the end of the scene. Go through it slowly, seeking to understand the shifts in tone and perspectives of both Angelo and Isabella. Pay close attention to Angelo’s claim that Isabella should put on “the destined livery” (2.4.139). What does he mean here? How are they speaking different languages?


Day Two


On our second day of the play, I want us to consider once again genre, and the uneasy resolution. To return to our frame, that of institutions, we find that ultimately the institutions win out, ending this play uneasily with the institution of marriage.


So for your quiz, I’ve asked you to do something different, namely, identify a line or passage in the play that speaks to how this is a “problem play.” For the rest of class the discussion leaders will take it away, but I’m hoping that we will also get to the following passages:


Passage: Abhorson’s “mystery” at 4.2.28-ff.


Barnardine’s refusal to die: 4.3.20-ff.


The Duke and Isabella: 4.3.111


Angelo’s belief that Isabella will not speak out: 4.4.20-ff.  


Isabella’s speech at 5.1.21. And then at 97 up to 124.

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