Measure for Measure By William Shakespeare
- Pages: 21
- Word count: 5042
- Category: Shakespeare
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The first thing to note is that ‘Measure for Measure’, unlike some of the comedies, has a highly significant title, a phrase which not only sums up the basic theme of the play, but is brought out and emphasized in the last act, when the Duke condemns Angelo: “An Angelo for Claudio; death for death. Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure” ( V. i. l. 406-409 ). To me, the title ‘Measure for Measure’ suggests balance. It is all about duality, and the theory that there are two sides to everything, to every story.
Everything has an opposite. Good versus bad, right versus wrong, law and order versus vice and inequity. All the characters and themes throughout the play carry this duality. ‘Measure for Measure’ takes it title from the Gospel according to Matthew: “with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. ” (Matthew 7:2), a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, one of Christ’s most famous sermons. Many of the people in Shakespearian times were religious and read the Bible and so were likely to know of this sermon.
Among other things, this sermon shows the importance of the difference between outer sacredness and inner corruption. Like the play, the Sermon on the Mount stresses the world of thoughts, intentions and the mind, showing not only what a person does but also what they think. He takes the Ten Commandments and explains them. More to the point, he speaks about the world of sexual activities: Thou shalt not commit adultery. The laws that are stated by the Ten Commandments can dictate behaviour, distinguishing between what is good and what is bad, but it cannot dictate attitudes and intentions.
Another biblical reference that sums up the whole idea of balance and equality in the play- “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. ” This quote, or sections of it can be found in four different places in the Bible. (Exodus 21:23-25) (Leviticus 24:18-20) (Deuteronomy 19:21) (Matthew 5:38). All these extracts are basically saying ‘you reap what you sow’ or ‘do as you want to be done by’. They all show that there are two sides to everything. Justice must be measured out.
This is summed up well in another biblical reference- “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you. ” (Matthew 7:1-2). There is also one other final passage from the Bible which sums up the general theme behind the whole play- “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. And do not pass judgment and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned; pardon and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For whatever measure you deal out to others, it will be dealt to you in return” (Luke 6:35-38). Such biblical references would be used by Shakespeare to show his audiences that God and his word rules over all, he controls and has power over everything.
The problem with making moral laws is the temptation to take the place of a God, or at least to be so superior to decide what morality to impose and how to do it. Although this problem would have been less troublesome for Shakespeare’s society than for ours today. Having experienced religious conflict in their own time, Shakespeare’s audience were well aware that in a moral system, the authorities were prone to think and act, as if the result justified the way of getting there.
‘Measure for Measure’ is all about how society, morals and philosophy all eventually become balanced on the scales of justice. Measure for Measure’ concerns itself with human behaviour. It considers the need for rules, laws to govern human instincts and ensure peace as far as is possible. But it also focuses our attention on the inner individuality of a person that operates according to values, the moral centre of the person. The relationship between outer actions and inner values is one of the major themes of the play. ‘Reformation theology’ was influential at the time of Shakespeare and it reminded people that each person was tainted with evil, such as Angelo’s inner corruption.
It was the belief that every aspect of existence was affected by Adams first sin and that no one could claim to be totally virtuous. This really shows in ‘Measure for Measure’ as there is not one character that hasn’t committed a sin, not even Isabella as she throws away all her morals at the end to marry the Duke (or so we are led to believe). The title ‘Measure for Measure’ immediately suggests balance and equivalence. It explores an ideal balance, or a sort of symmetry and tries to bring together opposites like the law for Angelo, chastity for Isabella, life or death for Claudio.
Like Claudio, Angelo has got a woman pregnant outside of marriage but their feelings for these women oppose each other. Angelo’s relationship and promise of marriage with Mariana reflects that of Claudio’s and Juliet’s, but Claudio wished to marry Juliet whereas Angelo abandons his intended. Angelo and Claudio both have sex outside of marriage but Claudio’s crime “was mutually committed” ( II. iii. 27 ) and Angelo’s was all about desire and deceit. A major theme of the play is the nature and use of the law, or crime, punishment and justice.
A common image of the law is the scales of justice balancing between mercy and punishment. The law seems to swing from one extreme to another, without resting somewhere in the middle. The play emphasizes the difficulty the law has in dealing with human behaviour. If the law is truly used for social harmony and if a good government is there to help produce good people in its citizens it must find some way to affect all individuals. But the play shows that law cannot deal with anything but behaviour.
Angelo mentions this matter when he says to Escalus: “‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, Another thing to fall. I not deny The jury passing on the prisoner’s life May in the sworn twelve have a thief, or two, Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice, That justice seizes. What knows the laws That thieves do pass on thieves? ” ( II. i. l. 17-23 ). The problem raised that the law can deal with what a person does but not with what a person is. And at the end of the play Isabella confirms that, when arguing for forgiveness for Angelo: “Let him not die.
My brother had but justice, In that he did the thing for which he died: For Angelo, His act did not o’ertake his bad intent, And must be buried but as an intent That perish’d by the way. Thoughts are no subjects; Intents, but merely thoughts. ” ( V. i. l. 447-452 ). The inability of the law to deal with the thoughts of individuals reveals how limited the authority is on rectifying the society. One can legislate morality, but one cannot create a moral or upright person. Finally, the Duke cannot do what he wanted to do: establish a moral order in Vienna.
In the eyes of the law, Angelo should really be punished more severely than he eventually is although his forced marriage, his self-image and public image are all punishment enough. For Angelo and Lucio, marriage is punishment but for the women they marry it is a sort of reward. This takes away the romanticism of marriage. The appropriate balance of crime and punishment run through the play. It looks at how Claudio is in a committed and loving relationship and shouldn’t be unfairly punished. The play shows how difficult it is to enforce the law correctly.
Angelo says “what knows the laws That thieves do pass on thieves? ” ( II. i. l. 22-23 ) and Isabella says that God “is the top of judgement” ( II. ii. 75 ). None of the plays persistent offenders, Barnadine, Pompey, and (to an extent) Lucio, show any sign or reforming and this shows that the laws are not very powerful when it comes to controlling social and sexual morality. Substitution is another well-used theme in ‘Measure for Measure’. The substitution of the Duke by Angelo, Mariana for Isabella in Angelo’s bed, and a similar looking corpse for Claudio, when he is believed to be dead by Isabella.
Another substitution is the execution of Barnadine, his death instead of Claudio’s. This and the ‘bed trick’ show how people can be changed and swapped- that one dead head can be like another, and bedding one woman can be much the same as bedding another. There are other types of substitution too, such as the seduction of Isabella by Angelo requires her to substitute her virginity for Claudio’s life (although eventually she does not). Whipping and a forced marriage are substituted for death in the case of Lucio, as a forced marriage is also substituted for death in the case of Angelo.
Yet another substitution- although this was is not confirmed, it is only speculated is that of Isabella’s chastity and life in a convent, for a married life with the Duke. It is interesting how she gives up this life for the Duke but refuses to do it for Claudio. All this substitution only enforces the title ‘Measure for Measure’ more, showing how one thing can be replaced for another so it still balances out. One of the themes that is a foundation in ‘Measure for Measure’ is the opposites of freedom and restraint. In one sense, freedom and restraint are shown as places, in the form of the brothel and the prison.
In another sense, it is psychological, as both Angelo and Isabella have to assert some self-control. Freedom may appear to be a good thing but it is the exact thing that got Vienna into the state it is now. Claudio blames “too much liberty” (I. ii. l. 124) for his arrest. Elsewhere, opportunities for action come to be restraint, like when Isabella tells Claudio of the unacceptable price to set him free, she says “a restraint, Though all the world’s vastidity you had, To a determined scope” ( III. i. l. 71-73 ). The play’s theme of duality carries over into the characters.
It would appear, for most of the characters, that they have their opposite somewhere else in the play. Isabella has her opposites in three different characters: that of Mistress Overdone, Julietta and Mariana. They are all willing to give up their virginity to men and if sex is they way to solve their problems then they will do it. Although some characters are opposites, there are many that also compare in some ways. For example, the Duke and Pompey. They are at complete opposite ends of the social structure but neither are very good at their jobs.
Shakespeare is of course punning on the word angel (by definition a person who is kind, pure or beautiful) in the use of Angelo’s name, as he is of course, the exact opposite. He is self-righteous and too intent on enforcing the law. Further, he attempts to enjoy his power by forcing Isabella to yield to his sexual desires. He is morally guilty of lust and murder and actually guilty of hypocrisy, meanness, and treachery; he deceives himself. He makes a full and immediate confession to the Duke, pleading for swift death as his punishment.
Angelo ultimately proves to have a false appearance; his statements of virtue and self-control do not match his behaviour. But to call him a hypocrite is not strictly fair as he is as surprised at his lust as anyone else, at least in the beginning, and he questions his moral status at the beginning of the play. His morality had always been important to him, and when he commits a sin it catches him off guard. When he finds himself lusting after Isabella, he exclaims with surprise, “What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter, or the tempted, who sins most, Ha? Not she; nor doth she tempt; but it is I That, lying by the violet in the sun, Do as the carrion does, not as the flower, Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be That modesty may more betray our sense Than woman’s lightness? ” ( II. ii. l. 163-170). Angelo finds that he has a double nature: the first is the virtuous man that would have carried on how society would like him to and the second, a lustful and power-hungry character. His awareness of this duality is shown in his speech.
In the scene ( II. ii ) where Isabella begs for her brother’s life he shows both sides of his character. Until the point where he attempts to seduce Isabella, his language is straightforward with single meanings. But when he begins to pursue Isabella, he speaks with many asides and double meanings. His change in character is mirrored in the speech, and it reveals to the audience and maybe also Isabella, Angelo’s inner corruption and lack of honour, in the difference between what he seems to be on the outside and what he actually is on the inside.
Angelo being likely to be tempted and sin and giving in (though by no means excusable) was not surprising to the audience. His real character shows through in subtle ways from the beginning of the play, preparing those watching for some bad behaviour to come. His pride made him especially vulnerable to temptation and sin. Isabella, who’s name means beautiful and devoted to God, is incredibly noble. Though her refusal to save Claudio by giving in to Angelo’s sexual designs is often criticised by readers and audiences of the play as cold-hearted self-righteousness, but she is only standing up for her beliefs.
She is, however, only a novice and preparing to enter the convent, she is not a nun who has already renounced ties to the world and therefore, her refusal is a part of her testing to see if she is really meant for the convent. Isabella is not without her complexities and her problems. At the beginning of the play we find her wanting to enter a nunnery. The choice of a religious life sets her apart as a virtuous character. Lucio, one of the more cynical characters in the play, is even taken with her purity.
When he goes to tell Isabella that her brother has been arrested for impregnating his lover Julietta, Lucio defends himself against Isabella’s charge that he is mocking her, “I would not, though ’tis my familiar sin, With maids to seem the lapwing, and to jest Tongue far from heart, play with all virgins so. I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted By your renouncement an immortal spirit, And to be talk’d with in sincerity, As with a saint. ” ( I,iv. l. 31-37 ). Even though Lucio is taken with her sincerity, the audience has heard another aspect of her character that Lucio hasn’t.
When speaking to one of the nuns at the nunnery, Isabella reveals another aspect of herself, ‘Isabella- “And have you nuns no farther privileges? ” Francisca- “Are not these large enough? ” Isabella “Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more, But rather wishing a more strict restraint Upon the sisters stood, the votarists of Saint Clare. ” ( I. iv. l. 1-5 ) Here Isabella shows herself as someone who has a life that demands curbs and restraints. Whether or not she knows about this problem but won’t admit it, Isabella is showing the need for some kind of restraint because her nature makes her likely to make errors.
Her virtue, therefore, is lacking in some important aspects; it is passive rather than active. It is not enough to run away from evil- for example, by entering a convent; a good person must also promote good. By becoming a nun Isabella, it appears, wants to balance out her inner character. There is no doubt how Shakespeare meant us to regard the Duke. “One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself” ( III. ii. l. 226-227 ) “a gentleman of all temperance,” ( III. ii. l. 231 ) says Escalus. Isabel, in a moment of distress, refers to him as the “good Duke. ( III. i. l. 190 )
Angelo, in his moment of deepest humiliation, talks to him with profound awe. Lucio regards the Duke cynically, but he ends up admitting that he deserves a whipping for doing so. How to deal with inner corruption and immorality is one of the major concerns of the Duke as well as the play. The role of the Duke in Vienna was to restrain law braking and to promote virtue. So it is that the Duke has a problem to solve at the beginning of the play. The Duke had permitted the society and his people, the people of Vienna to follow its natural course.
He had allowed the laws to go unpunished for too long, permitting vice to grow and good to wither, as he explains- “We have strict statutes and most biting laws. The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades, Which for this fourteen years we have let slip; Even like an o’er-grown lion in a cave That goes not out to prey. ” ( I. iii. l. 19-23 ). The entire city of Vienna had become corrupted because the Duke had failed to do his job properly. Like a garden will be overrun with weeds if not cared for, the social fabric will unravel without care.
The Duke was responsible for this, but he has been careless and now the entire city is paying the price. The Dukes solution however was impractical. He assumed that implying the laws once again would be sufficient to fix the situation and so he established his deputy Angelo as his replacement, knowing that Angelo would strictly enforce the laws, “I have on Angelo impos’d the office; Who may, in th’ambush of my name strike home, And yet my nature never in the fight To do in slander. ” ( I. ii. l. 40-43 ) Yet in his desire to restore order, the Duke avoids personal and political responsibility.
Based on this fact, it is fair to say that the Duke and Angelo are opposites. Although they are both men of power who rule over Vienna at one point or another, they are otherwise both very different. The Duke is the kind of person who likes to keep out of the shadows, out of people’s ways and watch from a distance. He dodges responsibility and when things are at their worst and times are really getting tough, he pretends to leave Vienna. His city has almost fallen into disrepair because he didn’t enforce the laws enough and he just let his people live without interfering.
When he leaves, he shifts all the responsibility onto another, Angelo, who is the opposite. Angelo is someone who wants to be in control, he loves power and responsibility and he craves to be in the limelight. He has no problem with enforcing the law and dishing out punishment (whether they truly deserve it or not) to those who break the rules. Angelo is more than happy to interfere with peoples lives. Lucio is full of imagination, witty, opportunistic and the morally bankrupt representative of upper-class Vienna.
His clothes and manners express eccentricity; here again is another example of outer glitter covering inner corruption. One of his principal functions is as a ‘go-between’. He is always going somewhere different, talking to different people and he often wanders in and out of scenes alone. Many of his lines are witty and jesting and even when faced with the seriousness of Claudio’s arrest he is flippant. He seems to have escaped punishment (although obviously commited crimes) and he flits between all the different social circles in the play.
He seems to enjoy the power of information and gossip. Claudio, who’s name means lame, show that in his attitude to what he did to Julietta he has morals and accepts responsibility for making an error. ‘Lucio “Why, how now, Claudio? Whence comes this restraint? ” Claudio- “From too much liberty, my Lucio. Liberty, As surfeit is the father of much fast; So every scope by the immoderate use Turns to restraint. Our natures do pursue, Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die. “‘ ( I. i. l. 116-122 ). He suggests there is a natural order justice. But Lucio does not. When he talks about the same situation with Isabella, Lucio avoids the animal imagery used by Claudio.
Instead, he uses agricultural imagery, suggesting not a sin, or breaking the law but rather the act of a natural process: “Your brother and his lover have embrac’d: As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time That from the seedness the bare fallow brings To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb Expresseth his full tilth and husbandry. ( I. iv. l. 40-44 ). Escalus is a rare character who appears to be balanced. He seems to be the balancing force in the centre of the ‘scales’. Esclaus’s name is another pun on Shakespeare’s part. It is based on the word ‘scales’ and apart from relating to the obvious balance themes of the play it also symbolises Escalus’ character. He is one of the only fair people in the play who does not judge, does not take sides, does not talk about others behind their backs and he gives what punishment is necessary when it is necessary.
Escalus can see that Claudio is not a bad person and shouldn’t be as severely punished as Angelo would like. He asks Angelo to empathise- “whether you had not sometime in your life Erred in this point which now you censure him” ( II. i. l. 14-16). In a way, Escalus is the one who everyone else should be measured against. Although he is not one of the main characters and keeps to the background a lot of the time, he is very important and should not be overlooked. Many characters, depending on what their status is and their role within the play, have a different way of speaking.
Pompey, a member of the lower class, speaks in a more bawdy way, using lots of puns and insults. Whereas the Duke who is more upper class, speaks often with rhymes and much of his speech is a sort of commentary. Shifts between the different uses of language are important like the difference between Claudio’s blank verse and Lucio’s jokes in I. ii. Many of the plays characters, including the Duke, Isabella, Escalus and Claudio, use different forms at different points. Rhyming is often used to show that the character who is wise and knowledgable.
This emphasises the characters to the audience, to show there true personalities through speech as well as their actions. Shakespeare distinguishes strongly between many of the characters through speech, especially those which he had designed to be opposing. In order to become involved with the plays moral dilemmas and ethic questioning, it is important for the audience to try and put themselves in the place of the characters on the stage and ask what they would do if they were in that characters position. The play is problematic in the way it views of society and morality. Vienna is a world of corruption.
The Dukes description of the city: “We have strict statutes and most biting laws, The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades, Which for this fourteen years we have let slip; Even like an o’er-grown lion in a cave That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers, Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch, Only to stick it in their children’s sight For terror, not to use, in time the rod Becomes more mock’d than fear’d: 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. ( I. iii. l. 19-31 ).
Described here is the loss of morals and the loss of etiquette. In ‘Measure for Measure’ one particular problem is solved by ‘the famous bed trick’, the substitution of Mariana for Isabella. The ultimate design of the Duke is to rectify all the corrupt situations at hand and the revealing of private vices might be good, but there is real question mark over the means he uses to achieve those ends (just as there is question about his use of the disguise of a friar, especially when he hears confession) when he sends Mariana to Angelo.
The Pompey subplot emphasizes the sexual corruption in the city and the implications of laws that have not been enforced in Vienna. But it also suggests that human laws and human morality are quite unpredictable. Good and virtue are defined not by standards but by how the people act. ‘Escalus- “How would you live, Pompey? By being a bawd? What do you think of the trade, Pompey? Is it a lawful trade? ” Pompey- “If the law would allow it, sir. ” Escalus- “But the law will not allow it, Pompey; nor it shall not be allowed in Vienna. ” Pompey- “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city? ( II. i. l. 221-228 ) Whatever the law, according to Pompey, it is an unreasonable imposition that violates human nature. Such social opinions spread through the entire play. And it isn’t a matter of class: Lucio, of the upper classes, shares the same morals as Pompey.
The whole play is preoccupied with sex and Shakespeare uses language throughout to show this. There are more obvious references, like Lucio’s talk of sexual diseases in I. ii. However, most of the references to sex are innuendoes, such as when Isabella says to Angelo “I am come to know your pleasure” ( II. iv. 1 ). This is a very obvious sexual innuendo.
Other terms such as ‘pregnant’, that has different meanings, is sometimes used literally (as in with child) rather than in the sense it should be used within it’s the context. This emphasises how duality can be found in speech throughout the play. This makes the audience think more and is often more entertaining for them to search for many different hidden meanings in even the simplest lines. The final act of the play reveals a failure on the Duke’s part and reveals the large gap between desire and fulfilment or wishes and reality.
Act V divides into two parts. In the first part, the Duke returns as if he had really been away. The order established in this portion of the act is certainly unwarranted, and Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony only emphasizes how unfair the Dukes announcements are. The second half of the final act is a comedic one, with the ending the audience wants and the justice the audience hope for. Angelo and Lucio are judged and found guilty, but both are saved from the worst punishments. Claudio is finally restored to his sister (and presumably Julietta). The play ends in several marriages.
The marriages, unlike those of most of Shakespeare’s comedies are more forced rather than embraced. There are weddings for Angelo and Mariana, Claudio and Juliet, and the Duke and Isabella. Although this last pairing is not actually confirmed, we assume it will happen. Even Lucio will probably be forced to marry a prostitute whom he has impregnated. This is a traditional ending to comedies, and it provides a sort of conclusion, suggesting that all the characters are about to start another phase in their lives. However, it is not really a happy solution for Angelo or Lucio, who would rather remain bachelors.
The Duke proposes to Isabella in the last scene of the play- “Give me your hand and say you will be mine. ” ( V. i. l. 490 ). Isabella’s willingness to marry is unlikely, since she wanted to be a nun and throughout the play we hear about her morals, but if the Duke has his heart set on her than she will probably not have much of a choice in whether to marry him or not. Perhaps Shakespeare was trying to tell us that Isabella joined the nunnery only because she could not find a worthy husband, like Mariana did not marry because her only candidate, Angelo, left her.
I think says something about the treatment of women in the play, or perhaps Shakespearian times, and their independence or lack of it. There may not be a good solution to the personal and social problems presented in ‘Measure for Measure’ and this is what has led many critics to call this a problem play or a dark comedy. The term ‘problem play’ came about because critics had a difficult time bringing together the dark and cynical tone of some of Shakespeare’s plays with the general characteristics of a comedy. ‘Measure for Measure’ has been included as a comedy but in many respects it doesn’t seem very comedic.
Like a traditional comedy, couples are joined at the end of the play but this came about at a great price (Claudio is almost killed, Isabella is propositioned, and Angelo is forced into marriage). There is forgiveness, but it is strained; there is correction, but it comes as a result of deceit, trickery, and manipulation. All in all, I think that the play leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. This play is hard to fit into a neat category, thus the term ‘problem play’. At the end, then, the play is as troubling as it was from the beginning, and one wonders if anything has really been solved at all.