Measure for Measure (Vol. 86)


Measure for Measure

A dark comedy likely written in 1603, Measure for Measure is often viewed as Shakespeare's most challenging problem play. Set in Renaissance Vienna, the drama features three principal figures: the Viennese Duke Vincentio, his puritanical deputy Angelo, and Isabella, a novice nun. After the Duke places Angelo in charge of Vienna and pretends to leave the city, he disguises himself as a friar so that he may observe Angelo's harsh administration of the law. Angelo, displeased by what he perceives as the lax morality of Vienna's citizenry, decides to more forcefully impose a code prohibiting fornication, or sex out of wedlock, and accuses Isabella's brother Claudio of the crime. Faced with the execution of her brother, Isabella entreats Angelo for Claudio's life but recoils when she is told that the price of what she asks is the sacrifice of her virginity. At the play's resolution, the Duke returns to power, spares Claudio, and offers a proposal of marriage to Isabella. This apparently happy ending, however, has struck many as unsatisfactory. Scholars generally acknowledge that the ethical questions raised over the course of the play remain largely unresolved at its conclusion. Additionally, debate over the play's indeterminate genre has led many scholars to renew their focus on Shakespeare's dramatic design in Measure for Measure. Several commentators, including Robert B. Bennett (2000), have argued that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare presented a unique and experimental comic method. Bennett maintains that unlike the utopian moral framework of Shakespeare's previous festive comedies, Measure for Measure is a comic romance that highlights the paradoxical qualities of human nature.

Contemporary critical examination of the characters in Measure for Measure has tended to focus on the triad of Duke Vincentio, Isabella, and Angelo, and generally highlights the complexity of Shakespeare's portrayal of these figures. Mark Taylor (1994) presents a psychoanalytic examination of the major characters in Measure for Measure. Taylor explores the dynamics of sexual desire in the play by applying psychologist Karen Horney's theory of neurosis, suggesting that the outwardly inconsistent behaviors of the Duke, Angelo, and Isabella are a result of their hidden sexual anxieties. Taylor additionally studies Isabella's emotional development and the relationship of Lucio's bawdy humor to the drama's depiction of sexuality. Natasha Korda (2002) offers a feminist and new historicist interpretation of Measure for Measure's female characters, arguing that the presence of numerous unwed young women in the play manifests a patriarchal anxiety concerning the threat of the single woman to post-Reformation European social stability. The critic notes that while some women, such as Isabella, opt to remove themselves to a nunnery, others such as Marianna, Juliet, and Mistress Overdone reflect the status of the single woman as a potential site of poverty, prostitution, or premarital pregnancy that requires the surveillance and intervention of male authority. Vivian Thomas (1987) studies Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure and contends that these figures exhibit a realistic delineation of human character, full of nuance and convincing, if sometimes suppressed, psychological motivation. Thomas underscores the intentional ambiguity in Shakespeare's characterizations of Isabella and Angelo by analyzing their verbal exchanges, particularly Isabella's pleas for the life of Claudio. The critic also notes that in their scenes together, Angelo's self-delusion and cynical moralism clash with Isabella's repressed sexuality.

In spite of its ambiguity, Measure for Measure has remained relatively popular on the stage. The play can be a challenge to directors, who often struggle to find the right balance between the drama's serious moral content and its comic elements. In his review of Mary Zimmerman's 2001 staging of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in New York City, Charles Isherwood (2001) notes the production's focus on the play's comic aspects. While Isherwood praises the performances of the talented cast, he laments the loss of the play's more disturbing and thought-provoking qualities in this interpretation. In her review of director Liz Huddle's 2003 production of the drama at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Celia Baker (2003) remarks on the easygoing appeal of this conventional comic staging, but notes that the production did not attempt to resolve the problematic questions raised by Shakespeare's play. Reviewers Kenneth Tucker (2003) and Michael Billington (2003) critique director Sean Holmes's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Measure for Measure, which was set in the devastated, corrupt, and war-torn Vienna of the 1930s and 1940s. Tucker finds the production to be a compelling interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays. Billington, on the other hand, finds fault with Holmes's overemphasis on the corruption of modern society. According to Robert Hurwitt (2003), Daniel Fish's 2003 California Shakespeare Theater production of Measure for Measure effectively emphasized the complexities and enduring appeal of the play. Hurwitt remarks on the dark and irreverent humor mingled with bold seriousness in Fish's postmodern update of the drama, set in a contemporary insurance office. Overall, Hurwitt considers this staging inventive, provocative, thoughtful, and funny in its mordant depiction of the intricate relationship between the wages of sin and virtue.

Critics often highlight Measure for Measure's depiction of justice tempered by mercy and the corrupting mixture of human concupiscence and worldly power. Reflecting this trend, Harold C. Goddard (1951) interprets Measure for Measure as a study in the corrupting effects of power and self-righteousness on character. The critic singles out Angelo as an embodiment of a strident morality distorted by his own power over others, leading the Duke's deputy to immoderate sensuality (in his coercion of Isabella) and a hypocritical, self-righteous desire to punish others. William B. Bache (1969) examines the social and ethical concerns outlined in Measure for Measure and contends that the play points to self-sacrificing love as a remedy for the excesses of human liberty. Harriet Hawkins (1987) describes the fundamentally ambiguous qualities that have earned the drama's categorization as a problem play. Exploring Measure for Measure's focus on the problematic relationship between sex, sin, vice, and virtue, Hawkins suggests that Shakespeare's drama presents an irresolvable conflict between the rule of law and matters of human desire. Similarly, Martha Widmayer (1999) discusses themes of justice, law, and Christian mercy illustrated by Isabella's petition that Angelo's life be spared in the final scene of the play. The critic also explores the legal controversy over fornication and the legitimization of sexual intercourse as Elizabethan audiences would have perceived the issue, illuminating motifs of enforced marriage, criminalized sexuality, and the limits of secular justice in Measure for Measure.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Nigel Alexander (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Alexander, Nigel. Shakespeare: Measure for Measure. London: Edward Arnold, 1975, 64 p.

[In the following excerpt, Alexander considers the classification, structure, and historical context of Measure for Measure.]


In order, therefore to appreciate the nature of this artistic triumph and understand the problems which it poses its audience the play must be seen not as some dark aberration but as a normal and crucial stage in Shakespeare's development.

The enormous technical triumphs of Julius Caesar and Hamlet made possible, after 1599, the power and intensity of the great...

(The entire section is 4794 words.)

Robert B. Bennett (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Bennett, Robert B. “Measure for Measure as Comic Romance.” In Romance and Reformation: The Erasmian Spirit of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, pp. 55-68. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Bennett maintains that unlike the utopian moral framework of Shakespeare's previous festive comedies, Measure for Measure is a comic romance that highlights the paradoxical qualities of human nature.]


Comedy designed in the spirit of Erasmian humanism assumes that restoration of order occurs because of the reordering powers of Nature itself when these are coupled with human gifts of...

(The entire section is 6556 words.)