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 integrity.
The title of the play comes from the scriptural text: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” As the play develops and expands on this quotation, it becomes clear that a simple but generous resolution “to do unto others what you would have them do unto you” will not suffice to resolve the situation. The play pursues its text so relentlessly that any easy confidence in poetic justice is undermined. In the final analysis, the action tends to support an admonition to “Judge not that ye be not judged,” which can be either Christian charity or cynical irresponsibility.
The play, however, takes place in a world in which the civil authorities must judge others. Indeed, that is where the play begins. Vienna, as the duke himself realizes, is a moral morass, and bawdry and licentiousness of all sorts are rampant. The duke accepts responsibility for having been lax in enforcing the law. Corruption seethes throughout society from the nobility down to the base characters who are engaged less in a comic subplot than in a series of vulgar exemplifications of the pervasive moral decay.
The chilling paradox is that when Angelo, renowned for his probity and puritanical stringency, is made responsible for setting things right, he almost immediately falls victim to the sexual license he is supposed to eliminate. Claudio, whom Angelo condemns for making Juliet pregnant, had at least acted out of love and with a full intention to marry. Things do not turn out to be as they seemed. He who is responsible for justice yields to temptation while someone apparently guilty of vice is extenuated by circumstances.
Isabella, called on to intercede for her brother, is faced with an especially nasty dilemma, since her choice is between her honor and her brother’s life. Neither is a noble alternative, and Claudio is not strong enough to offer himself up for her and turn the play into a tragedy. Unfortunately, when Claudio shows his reluctance, she behaves petulantly rather than graciously. True, her position is intolerable, but she spends more time speaking in defense of her virtue than in acting virtuously. For all her religious aspirations, which are eventually abandoned, she is not large enough to ennoble her moral context.
Always lurking in the background is the duke, who watches developments and stands ready to intervene to avoid disaster. He seems slow to step in, but then if he had intervened earlier, or had never left in the first place, there would not have been a play that examines the ambiguities of guilt and extenuation, justice and mercy. The duke and Shakespeare allow the characters to act out the complex patterns of moral responsibility that are the heart of the play. When Angelo, thinking he is with Isabella, is in fact with Mariana, his act is objectively less evil than he thinks because he is really with the woman to whom he had earlier plighted his troth. Yet in intention he is more culpable than Claudio, whom he had imprisoned. Such are the intricate complications of behavior in the flawed world of Measure for Measure.
The justice that the duke finally administers brings about a comic resolution. Pardons and marriages unravel the complications that varying degrees of evil had occasioned, but no one in the play escapes untainted. The duke, after a period of moral spectatorship that borders on irresponsibility, restores order. Angelo loses his virtue and reputation but gains a wife. Isabella abandons her religious commitment but learns to be more human, for which she is rewarded with a marriage proposal. Everything works out, and justice, tempered with mercy, prevails. The audience is left, however, with an unsettled feeling that tendencies toward corruption and excess may be inextricably blended with what is best and most noble.