Measure for Measure (Vol. 65)


Measure for Measure

Classified by modern scholars as one of Shakespeare's “problem plays,” Measure for Measure has fascinated and perplexed audiences and critics alike for centuries. Set in the corrupted world of Renaissance Vienna, Measure for Measure is principally concerned with the subject of sexual morality, and is driven by Shakespeare's depiction of harsh early modern Viennese laws regarding sexual intercourse outside of wedlock. Its principal figures are the seemingly ineffectual Duke Vincentio, his severe deputy Angelo, Claudio, who has been sentenced to death for fornication, and Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella. While Isabella's entreaties for her brother's pardon do prove successful, critics acknowledge that many of the tensions raised over the course of the play remain open, resulting in a largely unsatisfactory resolution. Critical disagreement over the often contradictory manner in which the play confronts the theme of justice has been ongoing, as has the problem of the drama's structural cohesiveness, reflected by its discordant shifts in tone from comic to tragic. Overall, the debate concerning its classification, the critical struggle over ambiguities in Shakespeare's characterization, and the potent dynamics of marriage, celibacy, lust, and love continue to dominate current evaluations of Measure for Measure.

Recent critical discussion of character in Measure for Measure has typically focused on Isabella and Duke Vincentio, or on one or more of the play's minor figures. Linda McFarlane (1993) discusses Isabella's no-win situation in the play and mentions the limited choices—matrimony or chaste monasticism—offered to her as a woman, possibilities that echo during her notorious silence after the Duke's proposal of marriage. Carolyn E. Brown (see Further Reading) studies Isabella and Duke Vincentio from the point of view of psychoanalysis, concentrating on repressed sexuality as a dominating element in their relationship. Although a relatively minor figure in Measure for Measure, Lucio is nevertheless considered a significant foil to others in the drama. Charles Swan (1987) associates Lucio’s essentially comic character with a number of the play's ambiguities, noticeably in his subversive critique of the authoritarian Duke. Similarly, Kaori Ashizu (1997) highlights the importance of Barnardine, an apparently inconsequential man imprisoned by the Duke years before the action of the play and then forgotten. Using Barnardine's example, Ashizu maintains that the Duke cannot be envisioned as a completely noble or godlike governor, as a number of earlier critics have claimed.

Productions of Measure for Measure at the close of the twentieth century illustrate the play's interesting, if irregular, stage career, which has seen it produced along a continuum from a serious drama concerned with a woman's struggle to preserve her chastity, to an irreverent comedy that mocks society's hypocritical attitude towards sexual morality. Libby Appel's 1998 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the drama places itself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum by resonating with both hard-edged sexuality and bawdy eroticism. Commenting on the performance, critic Nancy Taylor (1999) observes the drama's potential to disrupt boundaries of identity between individual characters in the play, eliminate barriers between audience and stage, and even blur the distinction between spirituality and sexuality. Highlighting David Thacker's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for British television, reviewer Stephen J. Phillips (1999) examines the cuts, transpositions, and characterization decisions Thacker made for the televised medium, and contends that Thacker’s adaptation of the play to the “conventions of television realism” weakened the production.

While thematic studies of Measure for Measure confront a number of varied issues in the work, easily the most absorbing topic to contemporary critics has been that of sexuality. Materialist critic Jonathan Dollimore (1985) emphasizes the trangressive quality of human desire depicted in the drama, which threatens the social order and is exploited by the Duke to legitimate authoritarian repression. Disruption of sexual norms also figures prominently in Susan Carlson's (1989) analysis of a feminine-centered sexuality that pressures the conventional, male-dominated sexual hierarchy of Measure for Measure. Barbara J. Baines (1990) links alternative sexualities with power in her study of Isabella's chastity. In a parallel discussion, Alberto Cacicedo (1995) notes the use of marriage as a means of limiting feminine freedom and denying autonomy in the repressive and highly-gendered society of Shakespeare's Vienna. Maurice Charney (see Further Reading) clearly voices the proposition that Measure for Measure is fundamentally a drama about human sexuality, and examines the erotic, if not openly sexual, relationship between Isabella and Angelo. Describing the work as “sadopornographic,” David McCandless (1998) explores the psychological dynamics of sexuality as punishment in the play.

Other topics eliciting recent commentary have included law, spirituality, and the troublesome question of the play's genre. Ervene Gulley (1996) offers a legalistic and meta-theatrical analysis of Duke Vincentio's performance in Measure for Measure, which, she argues, is deeply embedded in Shakespeare's conception of law. Maurice Hunt (1987) comments on the motif of earthly versus otherworldly love that reverberates throughout the drama. Confronting prior accusations of inconsistency of genre in the work, Gregory W. Lanier (1987) acknowledges Measure for Measure's problematic division between the comic and tragic, but sees in Shakespeare's balanced juxtaposition of these dramatic modes a structural unity. Likewise, Gideon Rappaport (1987) argues that Shakespeare depicts a coherent theme of virtue in the drama that vindicates its supposedly inadequate conclusion. Finally, Kate Chedgzoy (2000) surveys the stage history of Measure for Measure in order to glean insights regarding the play's resistance to the ordinary dramatic categories of comedy and tragedy.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Gregory W. Lanier (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Lanier, Gregory W. “Physic That's Bitter to Sweet End: The Tragicomic Structure of Measure for Measure.Essays in Literature 14, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 15-36.

[In the following essay, Lanier presents a structural analysis of Measure for Measure, seeing in its divided form “a juxtaposition of two dramatic modes, tragedy and comedy, carefully poised to create a cohesive, resonant unity.”]

In 1949 E. M. W. Tillyard bisected Measure for Measure into potentially tragic verse and dissolutely comic prose; some years earlier G. Wilson Knight asserted that the symbolic sequence of transgression, judgment, and redeeming mercy provides an...

(The entire section is 10415 words.)

Gideon Rappaport (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Rappaport, Gideon. “Measuring Measure for Measure.Renascence 39, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 502-13.

[In the following essay, Rappaport responds to critics who view Measure for Measure as lacking unity, contending that there is sufficient thematic coherence in the drama's resolution.]

O place and greatness! millions of false eyes
Are stuck upon thee. Volumes of report
Run with these false, and most contrarious quest
Upon thy doings; thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dream,
And rack thee in their fancies.


In her call for papers for the 1980 Shakespeare Association Convention's...

(The entire section is 5138 words.)