Measure for Measure centers around the fate of Claudio, who has been arrested by the temporary duke Lord Angelo, while the real Duke looks on in disguise at the going on in his city. Angelo enforces a dictatorial morally restrictive regime on Vienna. Claudio is arrested for one such crime and sentenced to death.
Isabella, Claudio’s sister, is a paragon of virtue, and goes to Angelo to beg for mercy for her brother. He refuses, but propositions her, saying he’ll reconsider if she submits to him. She is shocked, and refuses, though her brother is at first eager to accept the deal.
At this point the real Duke intervenes in disguise, hatching a plan whereby Angelo will be forced to pardon Claudio and Isabella’s virtue left intact. However, the plan does not work, and Isabella presumes Claudio dead.
All of these machinations are revealed however when the Duke comes back as himself, and forces confessions from all involved, ending by asking Isabella to marry him.
Measure for Measure is considered a comedy, but for many this seems a misleading title. If it is a comedy, it’s certainly a dark one, replete with bitterness and cynicism. The play raises important moral issues with Christianity, but never truly seems to work through these issues, instead raising them and then quickly discarding them. No character comes to reconsider his or her beliefs about freedom, justice, sexual relationships, or morality. A very intriguing question–whether or not Isabella should commit a sin in order to save her brother–is never discussed in any great detail.
Some interesting facts
It is almost certain that the primary source for Measure for Measure was The Right Excellent and Famous Historye of Promos and Cassandra: Divided into Commercial Discourses, by George Whetstone, published in 1578. Whetstone had derived his plot from the Italian author Cinthio’s collection of stories called The Hecatommithi, written in 1565. Although we have no direct proof that Shakespeare could read Italian, based on the frequency with which he used Italian works as source material, some of which were not even translated into English at the time, it is likely that Shakespeare did know Italian. In this case he probably read both Whetstone’s version and the original work of Cinthio.
In Promos and Cassandra (1578), the novel which Measure for Measure was based on, the heroine who corresponds to Isabella’s character sleeps with a corrupt judge in order to save her brother’s life.
Unlike Vienna in Measure for Measure, fornication wasn’t punishable by death in Shakespeare’s England, but there were certain vocal parties who wanted it to be. For example the Puritan Phillip Stubbes (who thought that theater itself was “evil”) wrote that anyone guilty of prostitution, adultery, whoredom, or incest should be made to “taste of present death” or be branded “with a hot iron on the cheek, forehead, or some other part” (Anatomy of Abuses, 1583).
Shakespeare’s plays of this period are recurrently concerned with exiles of various kinds: abdications, banishments, abandonments. The self-exile of Vincentio in Measure for Measure (1603) is followed by several other works in which title or central characters, by election or rejection, take leave: Timon of Athens (1605), King Lear (1605-6), Coriolanus (1608), The Winter’s Tale (1609) and The Tempest (1611).
Elizabeth I died in 1603 and, as a court dramatist whose patron had just died after a 45 year reign, Shakespeare had reason to be twitchy about substitutions and transitions. After all, a new king had just begun his reign, and the playwright would have been unsure of his standing with royal favour. Professor James Shapiro notes in his new book, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, that Duke Vincentio is “an intellectual ruler who, like the new monarch [James I], enjoyed stage-managing how things worked out.”
Declan Donellan, co-founder of Cheek by Jowl, pointed out in his introduction to the company’s Russian production: “Measure for Measure … always strikes me as a very modern play. It’s about control and how one of the ways that we are controlled, by not only governments, but by churches and other institutions that seek to control us, is shame.”
Want to impress a friend? Here are some memorable quotes from the play…
Our doubts are traitors,
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt. (1.4.84)
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. (2.1.42)
Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most? (2.2.162)
They say, best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad. (5.1.440)