Measure for Measure is one of those troubled plays, like All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603, pb. 1623) and Troilus and Cressida (pr. 1601-1602, pb. 1609), that William Shakespeare composed during the same years he was writing his greatest tragedies. Though they are dark and often bitter, however, they are not straightforward tragedy or history or comedy; they have instead frequently been described as problem plays, which generally refers to plays that examine a thesis. The main concern in Measure for Measure is a rather grim consideration of the nature of justice and morality in both civic and psychological contexts.
The tone of this play, and of the other problem plays, is so gloomy and pessimistic that critics have tended to try to find biographical or historical causes for their bleakness. Some have argued that they reflect a period of personal disillusionment for the playwright, but there is no external evidence of this. Others have laid the blame on the decadence of the Jacobean period. Although such dramatists as John Marston and Thomas Dekker did write similar plays around the same time, the historical evidence suggests that the period was, on the contrary, rather optimistic. What is clear is that Shakespeare has created a world as rotten as Denmark but without a tragic figure sufficient to purge and redeem it. The result is a threatened world, supported by comic remedies rather than purified by tragic suffering. Consequently, Measure for Measure remains a shadowy, ambiguous, and disquieting world even though it ends with political and personal resolutions.
The immediate source of the play seems to be George Whetstone’s History of Promos and Cassandra (1578), which is based on a narrative and a dramatic version of the tale in Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1527), from whom Shakespeare also derived the plot of Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622). However, Measure for Measure is such an eclectic amalgamation of items from a wide variety of literary and historical loci that a precise identification of sources is impossible. Indeed, the plot is essentially a conflation of three ancient folktales, which J. W. Lever has identified as the Corrupt Magistrate, the Disguised Ruler, and the Substituted Bedmate. Shakespeare integrates these with disparate other materials into a disturbing, indeterminate analysis of justice, morality, and...
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