Measure for Measure (Vol. 49)
Measure for Measure
For further information on the critical and stage history of Measure for Measure, see .
Often identified as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," Measure for Measure begins on a serious note, drawing audiences in with its focus on the moral dilemmas of its major characters. By the second half of the play, however, the tone shifts to a comic one, which distances audiences from the characters and their plights. This discordance is one of the issues that makes the play "problematic." Another such issue is the play's stance on law, justice, and mercy. In analyses of these themes, critics are unable to agree on what message Shakespeare intended to convey. Often, such discussions focus on the characters of the Duke and Angelo, who, as governmental leaders, are in a position to interpret the law and dispense justice and mercy. Other topics of modern critical debate include the role of sexuality in the play, as well as Shakespeare's use of substitutions in the play.
In examining the inconsistencies in Measure for Measure, A. D. Nutall (1968) states that the "Grand Inconsistency" of the play is that "between the ethic of government and the ethic of refraining from judgement." Nutall examines Angelo and the Duke as rulers and heroes and maintains that it is possible to view Angelo as a good Machiavellian ruler, who retains a certain integrity throughout the play. The Duke, Nutall argues, is frivolous and cannot be taken seriously as a satisfactory hero. In exploring the attitudes of the Duke and Angelo regarding the law and its application, N. W. Bawcutt (1984) claims that Measure for Measure presents a dual image of the law, in which the law is ignored without consequence but may suddenly mete out harsh punishment with a certain arbitrariness. Mercy, Bawcutt demonstrates, is similarly presented in a variety of ways, whereas justice and the law are relatively indistinguishable from one another.
Other critics focus on how specific aspects of the law are treated in Measure for Measure. Margaret Scott (1982) reviews the play's vague law against fornication and cautions against approaching the play through the examination of Elizabethan marriage contracts. Jonathan (1985) studies the regulation of sexuality in the play, suggesting that, as in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, such regulation was a reaction of the State against the fear of anarchy.
In examining the apparent structural inconsistencies between the two halves of the play, Herbert Weil, Jr. (1970) argues that if the falling action of the play is viewed as light comedy, even farce, then the action does in fact "fit into a comprehensive design." Weil maintains that through the comic subplot involving Lucio, Pompey, and Mistress Overdone, Shakespeare prepares the audience for the comic reversals of the second half of the play. Furthermore, Weil suggests that Shakespeare deliberately altered his sources in order to engineer the audience's disappointment resulting from the failure of the action to resolve the characters' moral dilemmas. The purpose of this alteration, Weil asserts, was to highlight, through Shakespeare's parodying of the melodrama of his sources, the limitations of comic form and devices. At the same time, Shakespeare "stretches [comic conventions and implausible devices] into new possibilities." Like Weil, T. A. Stroud (1993) emphasizes the importance of the play's comic substructure, arguing that the comic plot initiated by Lucio was intended to balance, (and nearly does so, according to Stroud), the "quasi-tragic plot initiated by Angelo." Stroud stresses that an analysis of this doubling or balancing could resolve "some of the widespread critical dissatisfaction with this play." In her analysis of Measure for Measure as tragicomedy, Harriett Hawkins (1972) outlines some of the major discrepancies between the first and second half of the play and describes it as "a magnificent failure." Hawkins states that the most pervasive problem of the play is "that the memory of the characters, their speeches, and their conflicts between mutually exclusive moral alternatives simply cannot be revoked by the theatrical intriguing of a Duke. . . . "
The sexual relations between men and women play a major role in Measure for Measure. Kathleen McCluskie (1985) contends that the dilemmas in the play and the sexuality of its female characters are conceived of in entirely male terms: Mistress Overdone is a bawd, Juliet is obviously pregnant, and Isabella, in her nun's habit, denies sexuality. Only Mariana's position is ambiguous, since she is not a maid, widow, or wife. The organization of the second half of the play is designed to rectify this problematic status, McCluskie argues, and to reinstate Mariana within the male prescribed sex roles. Susan Carlson (1989) on the other hand, maintains that the play offers a "fragile" and "unusual" alternative to male dominated sexuality. This alternative, according to Carlson, is simply "the acknowledgement of qualities, options, and relations for both men and women not sanctioned by the standard sexual politics." In the end, Carlson notes, the possibility for the existence of this alternative, which challenges the play's male order, is eliminated.
In Measure for Measure, characters are repeatedly substituted for one another. Alexander Leggatt (1988) reviews some of these substitutions: Mariana for Isabella in the bed-trick, Angelo for the Duke, Barnardine for Claudio, and Ragozine for Barnardine. The critic maintains that the substitutions in the play either fail to achieve their intended purpose or are in some other way unsatisfying, concluding that the substitutions are both "revealing" and "fascinating" but incomplete. Additionally, Leggatt states that Shakespeare did not deliberately write an imperfect play in order to highlight the imperfections of his art. Hutson Diehl (1998) directly challenges Leggatt's view, insisting that this is indeed what Shakespeare has done. Diehl argues that Shakespeare explores, through the use of substitutions, the power and limitation of theatrical representation, and that in doing so, he creates a dissatisfaction in the audience's response to Measure for Measure. By creating this dissatisfaction, Diehl explains, Shakespeare uses the theater for "the project of reforming human behavior even as he acknowledges the limits of that project and distances his theater from the extremist views of radical Puritanism." Through Measure for Measure, Diehl concludes, Shakespeare inspires in his audiences a sense "of the infinite space that separates them from the divine."
Law And Justice
A. D. Nutall (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Measure For Measure: Quid Pro Quo?," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. IV, 1968, pp. 231-51.
[In the following essay, Nutall examines the inconsistencies and "ethical collisions" in Measure for Measure. In particular, the critic scrutinizes the ethics of government and judgment and contrasts Angelo 's moral character with that of the Duke.]
Some people seem to have little difficulty in understanding Measure for Measure; for example, Professor Wilson Knight. His summary of the play's theme is at once lucid and deeply attractive: "'justice' is a mockery: man, himself a sinner, cannot presume to judge. That is the lesson driven home in Measure for Measure."1 It is difficult not to respond gratefully to this thesis, which exalts the loving prostitute above the censorious prig, charity of heart above Olympian pride of intellect. If mankind is frail, then we, as part of mankind, are frail, and the proper response to our situation is not judgement, but love. Further, Professor Knight's thesis is not only inherently attractive; it also accords well with the main movement of the plot, which is from judicial retaliation to forgiveness and harmony. Again, it attaches itself closely to certain passages in the play—passages which derive their beauty from...
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Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Substitution in Measure for Measure," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 342-59.
[In the essay below, Leggatt stresses that not only is the use of substitutions pervasive in Measure for Measure, but that the substitutions are all problematic in that they fail to achieve the intended ends, or they are in some way unsatisfying. Leggatt concludes that the substitutions, although revealing, are incomplete.]
In the sources that Shakespeare used for Measure For Measure, the heroine gives her own body to the judge in order to save her brother. Shakespeare spares Isabella that fate by putting Mariana in her place. This substitution is part of a pattern of substitution, virtually a chain reaction, that runs through the play. A. D. Nuttall has called "vicarious action" the "principal idea" of the play,1 and James Black has shown how pervasive the idea is: not only does Mariana substitute for Isabella, but Angelo substitutes for the Duke; then Isabella asks Angelo to put himself in Claudio's place, and he does. When the bed-trick fails, "Maidenhead-for-maidenhead" becomes "head-for-head";2 Barnardine for Claudio; Ragozine for Barnardine. In fact, Ragozine has the distinction of being a substitute substitute. Not long ago I took part in a production of this play;3 at...
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Sexuality And Gender Relations
Susan Carlson (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "'Fond Fathers' and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure" in Essays in Literature, Vol. XVI, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 13-31.
[In the essay below, Carlson contends that Measure for Measure presents a "fragile and unusual" alternative sexuality in which relationships for both men and women that are not endorsed "by the standard sexual politics" are acknowledged. However, Carlson explains, the effort to create such a sexuality challenges the male order of the play and is terminated in the play 's final scene.]
Measure for Measure insists on defining its women in terms of their sexual relations to men. Such definition is clearest in the play's final scene when the Duke concludes Mariana must be "nothing" if she is not maid, widow, or wife (V.i.177-78).1 The definition is corroborated by Lucio with his addition of a more tawdry fourth alternative, "punk," to the unchallenged list of female types. Many critics responding to the play in recent years have explored this seeming equation of a woman's worth with her sexuality to conclude that the play's sexual attitudes result from a persistent male fear of women.2 Their feminist connection between gynophobia and the play's restrictive sexual definitions has helped explain many of the ambiguities in the play's highly sexualized...
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Structure, Imagery, And Inconsistencies
Herbert Weil, Jr. (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Form and Contexts in Measure for Measure" in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 55-72.
[In the essay that follows, Weil studies the apparent discrepancies between the form of the first and second halves of Measure for Measure, arguing that Shakespeare 's design can be viewed as comprehensive only if the play 's falling action "is played in a light comic, often farcical, vein. " Weil maintains that Shakespeare parodies the melodrama of his sources and highlights the limitations of comic conventions, but at the same time "stretches them into new possibilities. "]
Among the most challenging problems presented by Measure for Measure is why Shakespeare so thoroughly terminates before mid-play the dramatic intensity of his early acts. Although readers and critics have recognized this slackening of tension and suspense, few have been willing to grant that the dramatist may have carefully planned this change of mode. None, so far as I can discover, has shown convincingly why he turns his action to such frustrating anti-climax. Nor has any critic presented a theory of the play's unity that indicates why Shakespeare chose most of the details we find in his last acts. I feel that only if much of the descending action is played in a light comic, often farcical, vein, can all of its...
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Baines, Barbara J. "Assaying the Power of Chastity in Measure for Measure." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, No. 2 (Spring 1990) 283-301.
Argues that the in the play, chastity is clearly aligned with power and that Isabella's situation and "choice" represent cultural, societal values--not simply Isabella's own religious values.
Black, James. "The Unfolding of 'Measure for Measure'." Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 119-28.
Analyzes Shakespeare's use of the bed-trick and maintains that the playwright intended "to convey the sense that Mariana in sleeping with Angelo has done something right, and that the playturns upon the positive virtue of her action."
Bradbrook, M. C. "The Balance and the Sword in Measure for Measure." In The Artist and Society in Shakespeare's England: The Collected Papers of Muriel Bradbrook, Vol. I, pp. 144-54. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982.
Examines the treatment of justice in the play, pointing out the play's confusion between ecclesiastical and civil law as they pertain to marriage and sexual offenses.
Brennan, Anthony. "'What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know': The Structure of the Final Scene of Measure for Measure." In Shakespeare's Dramatic...
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