Measure for Measure (Vol. 76)
Measure for Measure
For further information regarding the critical or stage history of Measure for Measure, see SC, Volumes 2, 23, 33, 49, and 65.
Considered one of the most complex of Shakespeare's dark comedies, Measure for Measure (c. 1603) has been characterized as a problem play. Critics have debated almost every aspect of this work, including its themes, style, genre, characterization, and issues of artistic unity and structure. Set in Renaissance Vienna, the play centers on Duke Vincentio, ruler of Vienna; Isabella, a novice nun; and the puritanical deputy Angelo. The Duke, who has ruled the city with a light hand for many years, decides to more forcefully impose the laws of the land after he realizes that his subjects do not take the laws seriously. He leaves Angelo in charge of Vienna and pretends to leave the city. The Duke then disguises himself as a friar and observes Angelo's harsh administration of the law and his subsequent fall from honor. The final resolution, in which the Duke returns to mete out justice, ends in marriage and reconciliation between the major players. The play was first presented to King James I approximately one year after he became king of England. James's reputation as an ineffectual monarch preceded him to the throne, and critics speculate that Shakespeare based the character of Duke Vincentio on the King, using the character to highlight issues of justice, mercy, and the rule of law as they affected James and his reign. In addition to issues of government and politics, critical attention has also focused heavily on Shakespeare's treatment of sexuality, gender issues, and power in the play. Critics also continue to debate the play's ending, which many regard as unsatisfactory because of its many contradictions and ambiguities. Despite the play's difficulties, Measure for Measure has proven to be a popular and versatile subject for performance, lending itself to numerous modern interpretations.
Recent appraisals of character in Measure for Measure have reflected contemporary scholarly interest in gender relations, with study focused on the play's principal female role, Isabella. Often regarded as one of the play's more problematic characters, Isabella is central to the themes of sexuality, gender roles, and marriage in the play. Writing about critical responses to Isabella, George L. Geckle (1971) relates that early critics of Measure for Measure were either disapproving of Isabella or disturbed about her rigid adherence to her principles, which led many to regard her as unfeeling and self-absorbed. However, more recent appraisals of her character have been kinder; Geckle contends that Isabella's character exemplifies a heroine of unimpeachable virtue, one whose outward beauty truly reflects the good inside. Marcia Riefer (1984) contends that instead of focusing on characterizing Isabella as either a virtuous ideal or a rigid adherent to social norm, it is more rewarding to perceive her treatment in the play as a means of exploring the issue of female subjugation in a patriarchal society. According to Riefer, Isabella is pivotal not only in Measure for Measure, but also as a precursor to Shakespeare's later female characters, such as Paulina in The Winter's Tale. The character of the Duke has also elicited critical attention. Many critical essays focus on the comparison of his character and the ideas of kingship espoused by King James in his two treatises on monarchy. In her essay on the Duke and his ideas of justice and mercy, Cynthia Lewis (1983) evaluates the character of the Duke as the means through which Shakespeare demonstrated that even the best and most-beloved monarchs are ultimately human and have imperfections.
The critical debate over the inconsistencies and ambiguities in Measure for Measure has not made the play less popular with production companies. In fact, the ambiguous ending has often provided room for innovative interpretations of the play. In her review of Libby Appel's 1998 production of Measure for Measure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Nancy Taylor (1999) remarks on the successful manner in which Appel was able to stage the play in a modernistic setting, using props and background to blur the lines between audience and performance. D. J. R. Bruckner (1999) reviews a similarly modern interpretation of Measure for Measure staged by Jerry McAllister in the streets of New York City. Bruckner praises the production's untraditional elements, but notes that the background disrupted the action of the play. Another variation from the original is a Turkish staging of the play, directed by Taksim Sahnesi, which Marvin Carlson (1999) calls a “radical adaptation” but one that is “unquestionably the most powerful and effective” staging of Measure for Measure that he has ever seen. Ben Brantley (2001) reviews Mary Zimmerman's 1999 production of Measure for Measure for the New York Shakespeare Festival, which garnered much critical attention both for its acting and direction. Brantley contends that the performance was straightforward and noninterpretive, simply presenting the text as written, with no attempts made to reconcile the numerous ambiguities and contradictions in the play.
Recent thematic criticism of Measure for Measure has concentrated on issues of government and politics. Brian Gibbons (1991, see Further Reading) notes that the play derives both its title and its subject matter from relevant, contemporary issues of Shakespeare's time. He also remarks on Shakespeare's use of appearance to put forth ideas concerning justice and mercy, especially pointing to the masterful contrast built in the very beginning of the play between the character and appearance of Mistress Overdone and a very pregnant Juliet. Although their appearances contrast vividly—the former presenting an image of corruption and decay, the latter presenting a vision of love and fertility—Gibbons points out that in the eyes of the law, both were to be deplored. In this way, according to Gibbons, Shakespeare set up a series of paradoxes and contradictions which manipulated audience response and prompted theatergoers to reconsider initial impressions. Stephen Cohen (1999) contends that Measure for Measure begins as a romantic comedy and ends as a monarch play. The critic maintains that these two incompatible genres result in the play's “notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations.” Further, Cohen draws a parallel between the laws of equity that characterized Elizabeth's reign and the Jacobean view of governance, which emphasized absolute kingly authority. Measure for Measure has also been studied as a political statement about King James's reign. Several critics, including Carolyn E. Brown (1996), have drawn parallels between the character of Duke Vincentio and King James I. Brown notes that the play works at two levels—as a glorification of the theory of divine right, and as an example of the ultimate human failings that plague even the most well-intentioned rulers. Andrew Barnaby and Joan Wry (1998) contend that the play clearly comments on the dangers of using religious rhetoric for political or secular purposes. Lastly, Victoria Hayne (1993, see Further Reading) proposes that while the play rolls toward its apparent happy ending, there is enough variance in the action to suggest that Shakespeare was urging his audience to recognize the balance of social and political norm against human emotion.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Cohen, Stephen. “From Mistress to Master: Political Transition and Formal Conflict in Measure for Measure.” Criticism 41, no. 4 (fall 1999): 431-64.
[In the following essay, Cohen contends that Measure for Measure begins as a romantic comedy and ends as a monarch play. The critic maintains that these two incompatible genres result in the play's “notorious contradictions, incongruities, and frustrated expectations.”]
Through most of its critical history, responses to Measure for Measure have been of two types: those proffering a key that unlocks the play's notorious difficulties to reveal its unity and integrity, and those that find the play's unsatisfactory elements irreconcilable and thus declare it a failed or flawed work.1 In the last twenty-five years, however, readings that dismiss the play as flawed have largely been supplanted by others that see in those same flaws a different sort of key to the play: troubling aspects of characterization, plotting, and thematic consistency are now read as intentional violations of dramatic expectations designed to subvert the play's ostensible ordering principles. Thus, in addition to formalist readings that either argue for the play's success as a romantic comedy or assign it to another genre that accounts for its apparent formal deviations, we have readings that explain the play's formal irregularities as...
(The entire section is 15637 words.)
Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Geckle, George L. “Shakespeare's Isabella.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1971): 163-68.
[In the following essay, Geckle addresses Measure for Measure as a problem play, focusing specifically on the character of Isabella.]
Since critics are generally persistent in terming Measure for Measure a “problem play,” it is useful to designate exactly what the problems are. These cover a wide range of issues, such as the relationships between government and morality, law and justice, and mercy and justice, the dramatic structure and genre of the play, and the attitudes and actions of the play's various characters. In terms of the play's major figures probably more absurd statements have been made regarding Isabella than practically any other Shakespearian character, with the notable exception of Hamlet. It is Isabella who stands out today as Measure for Measure's greatest critical “problem.”
This problem of Isabella derives from the fact that a consensus has been taking shape over the years, an inaccurate, critically untenable consensus. It is based upon two stages of critical development: first, a great number of major critics have disapproved of Isabella; secondly, certain events and speeches in the play have been distorted to prove that Shakespeare also disapproved of Isabella and, in fact, subtly undercut her position throughout the play....
(The entire section is 3336 words.)
SOURCE: Lewis, Cynthia. “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 34, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 271-89.
[In the following essay, Lewis evaluates the character of the Duke as the means through which Shakespeare examined the imperfections of the monarchy in Measure for Measure.]
Unlike many Shakespearean plays that concern justice and human judgment, Measure for Measure opens with a clear-cut statement of its moral standard, an ideal, of sorts, which Duke Vincentio urges Angelo to achieve:
Mortality and mercy in Vienna Live in thy tongue and heart.(1)
From the start, the Duke calls for moderation in judgment, for a balance between exact punishment and forgiveness that, throughout the play, will remain a touchstone. Measure for Measure explores both the ultimate possibility of realizing this standard and the extent to which its characters, particularly the Duke, meet such a challenge.
Whether the Duke ultimately reaches his goal to unite strict punishment and mercy is an issue that has evoked as much comment as the means by which he sets out to accomplish it. Readers who, like Harriett Hawkins, find the play's ending “not only aesthetically and intellectually unsatisfying, but personally infuriating,” usually see Measure for Measure...
(The entire section is 10099 words.)
SOURCE: Slights, Jessica, and Michael Morgan Holmes. “Isabella's Order: Religious Acts and Personal Desires in Measure for Measure.” Studies in Philology 95, no. 3 (summer 1998): 263-92.
[In the following essay, Slights and Holmes highlight the role of religion in Measure for Measure through an analysis of Isabella's character.]
The symbolic centrality of religion in Measure for Measure comes as no surprise; after all, much of the play involves complications that are provoked by the machinations of a duke disguised as a friar. On a more political level, Shakespeare's play encourages audiences to consider the ways in which religion might facilitate personal desires and enable characters to challenge dominant social norms. In particular, the character of Isabella illustrates the implication of religious devotion and institutions in questions of moral agency and cultural reproduction. As a woman about to become a novice of the Order of Saint Clare, Isabella's desire to lead a cloistered existence defies early modern gender norms and suggests ways in which women could find self-affirming affective life together.
Our initial motivation for engaging with this topic was a discomfort with critical appraisals which assign Measure for Measure to a tradition of early modern antimonasticism. At the same time, though, we recognize the importance of these earlier...
(The entire section is 12253 words.)
Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Taylor, Nancy. “Measure for Measure.” Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 (March 1999): 73-6.
[In the following review, Taylor comments on Libby Appel's direction of Measure for Measure for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Taylor remarks on the successful manner in which Appel was able to stage the play in a modernistic setting, using props and background to blur the lines between audience and performance.]
Artistic Director, Libby Appel, created a series of boundary dissolutions in this production, an appropriate post-modern era approach to a play driven by stark and extreme contrasts. Her production of Uncle Vanya similarly highlighted the interdependence of presence and representation, spectator and spectacle inherent in the theatrical medium.
When I walked into the performance space, I saw larger-than-life erotica plastering the walls under the title “Sex Museum.” Scenic designer William Bloodgood's figures, inspired by the early 20th-century Viennese artist Egon Schiele, provoked a sense of the grotesque, of a potentially cruel and lonely sexuality. In the center of the playing space a square platform framed by iron works suggested the French Quarter. The floor was covered with tabloid newspapers, advertisements for phone sex, and fliers announcing Angelo's edict to shut down the bawdy houses. But on a support pillar near the back of the space was a...
(The entire section is 909 words.)
SOURCE: Bruckner, D. J. R. “Lower East Shakespeare: Life Encroaches on Art.” New York Times (20 August 1999): E5.
[In the following review, Bruckner praises Jerry McAllister's use and incorporation of the surrounding neighborhood in his street-stage production of Measure for Measure.]
Were it not for the neighborhood it is in, the Expanded Arts company's production of Measure for Measure might drive an audience to distraction with its determination to turn this ambiguous, moody play into a laugh circus. But the robust neighborhood steps in with its own distractions often enough to make what is in effect a series of witty comments on this, the last production this year of the company's free “Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot)” series.
The director, Jerry McAllister, has announced that the setting is not Vienna, but Times Square right now. How to know? Since the scenery is minimal—a low platform and two small chunks of brick wall painted on plywood—a viewer more likely will conclude that the action occurs in a municipal parking lot between Ludlow and Essex Streets south of Delancey on the Lower East Side.
It certainly is not 17th-century Vienna, but it is definitely the place for this show, which has characters careering around on in-line skates, bicycles, a little red wagon and, in the case of Pompey, Shakespeare's pimp, on a small motorized scooter....
(The entire section is 663 words.)
SOURCE: Carlson, Marvin. “Measure for Measure (Kisasa Kisas).” Theatre Journal 51, no. 3 (October 1999): 320-22.
[In the following essay, Carlson reviews a Turkish production of Measure for Measure, lauding it as a radical, powerful, and effective staging of one of Shakespeare's most difficult comedies.]
The spring season announcement for the five stages that make up the National Theatre in Istanbul listed fifteen productions, one third of them Turkish plays, the rest an impressive selection of international classics (such as Goethe's Urfaust and Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac) and modern works (such as Shaffer's Black Comedy and McNally's Maria Callas). One of the more unusual and provocative selections was a powerful and highly unconventional interpretation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in one of the National Theatre's larger spaces, the Taksim Sahnesi, staged by the much-admired artistic director, Nesrin Kazankaya. Besides directing, for which Nazankaya prepared with study in Germany, she has since 1980 also served as one of the leading actresses of the National Theatre.
Although this was easily the most radical adaptation of this difficult play I have ever witnessed, it was also unquestionably the most powerful and effective. Often in Shakespeare's later dark comedies, director and actor must struggle to come to terms...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)
SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Shakespeare's Darkness is Flooded with Light.” New York Times (18 June 2001): E5.
[In the following review, Brantley praises Mary Zimmerman's production of Measure for Measure at the New York Shakespeare Festival for its straightforward and simple presentation.]
It is alarming, you must admit, to see a grown man suddenly discover that he has a sex drive. Billy Crudup takes us through such a moment with appalled eyes and gritted teeth in the spry new production of Measure for Measure in Central Park. And while Mr. Crudup is a handsome fellow, it is definitely not a pretty scene.
The rising star of films like Almost Famous and Jesus' Son, Mr. Crudup plays Angelo, lord deputy of Vienna and super-prig of all time, the sort of person, it is said, who will “scarce confess that his blood flows.”
But Angelo has just met Isabella, the comely sister of a man he has condemned to death for fornication, and suddenly the lord deputy's blood is rushing like Niagara. You can actually see a reluctant blush creep over this actor's dead-white cheeks. Rigid with surprise and self-revulsion, he wipes his folded lips with the back of his hand, as though to erase in advance any illicit kisses. What's an angry young puritan to do? For Mr. Crudup's Angelo looks to be barely out of his teens, and nature will always have her way with...
(The entire section is 1078 words.)
SOURCE: Riefer, Marcia. “‘Instruments of Some More Mightier Member’: The Constriction of Female Power in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 2 (summer 1984): 157-69.
[In the following essay, Riefer argues that Isabella highlights the negative impact of patriarchy on female characters in the play, and contends that her eventual subjugation to male authority is incompatible with the dramatic tradition of romantic comedy.]
Isabella has recently been called Measure for Measure's “greatest problem.”1 She has not always been taken so seriously. Coleridge dismissed her by saying simply that Isabella “of all Shakespeare's female characters, interests me the least.”2 Criticism of her character has been cyclical and paradoxical, in part because critics have tended to focus on one implicit question: is she or is she not an exemplar of rectitude? On the one hand Isabella has been idealized as a paragon of feminine virtue; on the other hand she has been denigrated as an example of frigidity. Over the centuries, Isabella has been labeled either “angel” or “vixen,” as if a judgment of her moral nature were the only important statement to be made about her.3 When not idealizing or denigrating Isabella, critics have generally ignored her.4
The debate over Isabella's virtue obscures a...
(The entire section is 7108 words.)
SOURCE: Brown, Carolyn E. “Duke Vincentio of Measure for Measure and King James I of England: ‘The Poorest Princes in Christendom.’” Clio 26 (fall 1996): 51-78.
[In the following essay, Brown suggests that while Shakespeare used the character of Duke Vincentio to comment on King James I's abilities as a ruler, he also used his character to analyze the idea of divine monarchy in general.]
Scholars have proposed that Shakespeare was political in the sense that his plays reflect and comment on the crucial governmental issues and figures of his day, that his plays contribute to “pressing problems about prerogative, power, and authority.”1 It has been argued that Measure for Measure, in particular, reflects on James I and his political doctrines and actions. In fact, it is recorded that the play was performed before James in 1604 during the Christmas festivities. Critics have seen parallels between passages in the play and in James's book on his philosophy about governing—the Basilicon Doron. Shakespeare's fictional character of Duke Vincentio also embodies some of the characteristics of the ideal ruler that James delineates in his book and some of James's own character traits, such as his dedication to virtue and chastity, his reclusiveness, his scholarly nature, and his discomfort with crowds. Because the play was performed for James and because the male...
(The entire section is 11573 words.)
SOURCE: Barnaby, Andrew, and Joan Wry. “Authorized Versions: Measure for Measure and the Politics of Biblical Translation.” Renaissance Quarterly 51, no. 4 (winter 1998): 1225-54.
[In the following essay, Barnaby and Wry trace various biblical allusions used in Measure for Measure, emphasizing that although it is primarily a political play, the work is also a cautionary tale about the danger of using religious rhetoric in a political context.]
Despite the common practice of reading Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in relation to the cultural politics of the first year of the Stuart monarchy, politically-oriented criticism has largely neglected the play's connection to the politics of one of King James's most ambitious undertakings: the new biblical translation first announced in January of 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference. While maintaining that the play cannot be reduced to a simple allegory of James's effort to link his new political authority to the “authorizing” power of scripture, this essay examines how the “topicality” of that effort might be registered in the play's complex pattern of biblical allusion. We argue, finally, that with its staged conflict between ethical ideal and social practice, Measure for Measure offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of deploying religious rhetoric in secular political contexts.
(The entire section is 12846 words.)
SOURCE: Yoshihara, Yukari. “Money and Sexuality in Measure for Measure.” In Japanese Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Yoshiko Kawachi, pp. 70-85. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Yoshihara treats the themes of money and sexuality in Measure for Measure.]
Measure for Measure is much concerned with substitution, exchange and replacement. Angelo is substituted for the Duke as deputy; he proposes that Isabella's maidenhead should be exchanged for Claudio's head or his life; Mariana replaces Isabella in the bed trick; Regozine's head is substituted for Claudio's. In other words, they are exchangeable commodities like money. Furthermore, in the play, sexual reproduction is under surveillance by the state, just as coinage is. Illicit generation is compared to counterfeiting, and the crime of those who get “issues” without the state's sanction is a capital one, just as counterfeiting was a capital crime in Shakespeare's time. The model of monetary exchange informs the characters' bodies and souls. Not only coins, but also the subjects' bodies, their words, even the fluids circulating in their bodies must bear the sovereign's “figure” in order to be legitimately current.
The Duke's “figure” gains omnipotent authority over his subjects' sexual, verbal and mercantile transactions. The Duke assumes that he has...
(The entire section is 6341 words.)
Barbour, Richmond. “‘There Is Our Commission’: Writing and Authority in Measure for Measure.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99, no. 2 (April 2000): 193-214.
Provides an analysis of monarchical concerns as addressed via the character of the Duke in Measure for Measure.
Bawcutt, N. W. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, edited by N. W. Bawcutt, pp. 42-63. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Provides an overview of Measure for Measure, including plot and character analysis and a discussion of sources.
Bradbrook, Muriel. “The Balance and the Sword in Measure for Measure.” In Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare, pp. 118-28. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1984.
Examines issues of law as they are dealt with in Measure for Measure.
Dunkel, Wilbur. “Law and Equity in Measure for Measure.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13, no. 3 (summer 1962): 275-85.
Notes that Measure for Measure was written and produced in a climate acutely aware of the importance of administering law while keeping justice and equity in balance.
Feingold, Michael. “The Duke of Hazard.” Village Voice 46, no. 26 (3 July 2001): 67.
Reviews Mary Zimmerman's direction...
(The entire section is 666 words.)