[Frye uses the title of Measure for Measure to organize his essay around some fundamental components of the play: characterization, theme, and genre. He demonstrates, for example, how the play measures one character against another (such as Angelo versus Claudio) and one theme against another (such as justice versus mercy, or "a justice that includes equity and a justice that's a narrow legalism"). Frye also looks at the Duke's role as stage manager in the drama that occurs between Isabella, Angelo, and Mariana, and concludes by remarking on the ways in which Measure for Measure "proceeds upward" from potential tragedy to fulfill the requirements of comedy through marriage, forgiveness, and reconciliation.]
Most critics link the title of this play with a verse from the Sermon on the Mount: "Judge not, that ye be not judged: for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." The phrase is a common one, and was used by Shakespeare in an earlier play, but the link with this quoted passage seems to be clearly there, and suggests that this play is concerned, like much of The Merchant of Venice, with the contrast between justice and mercy. Only it doesn't talk about Christians and Jews; it talks about the contrast between large-minded and small-minded authority, between a justice that...
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Gender Roles and Sexuality
[Sundelson focuses on the male characters' insecurity regarding their masculinity in Measure for Measure. Sundelson argues that in the play, there is the fear that loss of power can cause a man to lose his sexual identity. Thus the Duke protects his masculinity by working from the sidelines—allowing his stand-in Angelo rather than himself to be made a fool of publicly. Angelo, on the other hand, demonstrates his fear of women when he tries to force himself upon Isabella. Sundelson argues that in this case, Aneglo is afraid that a women's "pretty face and . . . confident tongue" can weaken and emasculate a man—a fear that is violently expressed against women in later plays of the period.]
When Hamlet welcomes the Players to Elsinore, he pays special attention to one of them. ""What, my young lady and mistress! by'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a chopine. Pray God your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring" (II.ii.429-33). Although the repetition of "lady" and the bawdy puns ("cracked," "ring") may betray a certain uneasiness about what is female, Hamlet can joke comfortably enough about a farewell to it, about a boy actor who will soon be unable to play a woman's role. For Shakespeare, the movement from androgyny to a clearer, more certain masculinity is evidently not disturbing.
What can be very...
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Justice and Mercy
[In this excerpt from her study of the pervasiveness of revenge "as a useful social instrument in Shakespeare's comedies," Anderson reminds us that the Duke temporarily leaves Vienna in Angelo's hands not only to correct the city's excessive vices but also to test Angelo's ability to wield power fairly. Further, Anderson observes that as Isabella is forced to make decisions regarding her chastity, her brother's life, and Angelo's hypocrisy—and as the Duke himself steps in to draw the play to a close—the concept of revenge is intermingled with the concepts of justice and mercy to the extent that the three become "almost indistinguishable" from one another.]
None of Shakespeare's titles is more suggestive of revenge than Measure for Measure. Although the phrase itself may mean no more than strict justice, it recalls the Old Testament law often cited as vengeful:
. . . thou shalt paye life for life,
Eie for eie, tothe for tothe, hand for hand, fote for fote,
Burning for burning, wonde for wonde, stripe for stripe.
This is the spirit in which the Duke uses the phrase:
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
"An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!"
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
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[Caputi argues against the idea that an "ethical pattern" or set of rival themes such as justice, mercy, or Christianity organizes Measure for Measure. Further, he does not believe that the play is organized around any particular character or characters. Instead, he asserts that the play is intentionally structured for dramatic effect around "long slowly developing scenes" which clearly resolve themselves in the last act into a positive view of civilization.]
Much of the best criticism of Measure for Measure has focused on what one critic has called the "ethical pattern of the play." Critics have by no means agreed on the nature of that pattern or its function, but an impressive number have agreed that the play is governed structurally by a conceptual scheme. The strength of this criticism derives from the fact that the play is unusually rich in ideas—particularly ideas about law and Christian doctrine. Yet to grant that these critics have properly identified the play's subject matter is not to accept their assumption about the play's structure: that an "ethical pattern" determines it, that a single or even multiple thesis about the law, Christian justice, mercy, or atonement can or ought to account for every detail of character, every placement of scene, and every fleeting allusion to the order of St. Clare. Whatever its value, this approach to the play reveals an unmistakable weakness in...
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[Kirschbaum suggests that the change in the structure of Measure for Measure is the result of a change in the characterization of Angelo. At the beginning of the play, Kirschbaum notes, Angelo is cruel and inflexible, but this is tempered somewhat by the fact that he is also noble in his consistent adherence to the law. Kirschbaum contends that, in order to shift the play away from tragedy, Shakespeare is obliged to recreate Angelo for the final half of the play, turning him into a character who is no longer noble but who is instead "small-minded, mean, calculating (and) vindicitive."]
Not even Mary Lascelles' Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (1953), which is an almost word-for-word perception and analysis of the play, handles, or for that matter even recognizes, the problem I intend to deal with now, that of two strikingly disparate characterizations of the same character.
That Shakespeare, for the sake of the whole, for the sake of the entire impression which he wants a play to make, for the sake of the particular impression which he wants a play to make at a particular moment, could introduce a new motive for a particular character's actions, even at a relatively late or very late stage of the drama's progress, is proved by the clear insertion of Hamlet's ambition in the last act of his play. And that critics have noticed the phenomenon, whether they have brought good...
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William A. Freedman
[Freedman refutes the commonly held view of the Duke as inconsistent and inhuman, countering this viewpoint with the argument that Vincentio is in fact consistently "concerned with . . . his reputation and public image." Freedman remarks that reputation serves as an important theme in the play along wth mercy and justice, so that appropriately as the most powerful character in the play, the Duke brings these themes to the forefront at the close of Measure for Measure by displaying a human concern for his reputation and authority in Vienna even while he teaches his subjects the importance of tempering justice with mercy.]
Undoubtedly one of, if not the, most enigmatic of all Shakespeare's so-called "problem plays" is Measure for Measure. Much ink has been spent over the very intention of the play and over the related question of the abundance of the tragic element in this supposed comedy. Perhaps, however, one of the most controversial aspects of the play is the character of the Duke. Vincentio is commonly written off by many critics as an egregiously inconsistent, even non-human, character. Professor Mark Parrott describes the controversy and offers a not unpopular solution, as follows:
Pages have been written . . . about the Duke. He has been blamed as derelict in duty, he has been extolled as an earthly Providence watching over wayward children. All this is...
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[Lechter-Siegel observes that scholarly assessments of Isabella as morally rigid and therefore fortunate to have been "saved" from the convent through "moral education'' and by the Duke's marriage proposal are inaccurate because they stem from each critic's personal "value judgments" rather than from Renaissance history or the play itself. By contrast, Lechter-Siegel argues that Isabella does not in fact change her moral views, nor does she agree to marry the Duke. Instead, Lechter-Siegel asserts that Isabella's articulate speeches in the first half of the play threaten the Duke's absolutist control of the state and that the Duke himself represents England's absolutist monarch, James I. Because they pose a threat to the fictional state represented in the drama, as well as to the actual state of England, Isabella's subversive comments must be "contained" throughout marriage at the close of the play; however, Lechter-Siegel, argues that Isabella's resulting silence does not indicate that she has necessarily abandoned these subversive views.]
In act 1 of Measure for Measure, the novice Isabella first appears on stage in obedience before a religious authority of whom she requests a life of severe asceticism. In Isabella's first major speech, she makes closely reasoned pleas for the Christian principle of mercy. By contrast, in act 5 Isabella...
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