Measure for Measure (Vol. 86)

Introduction

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.]

SHAKESPEARE'S COMIC METHOD

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.]

I

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.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Vivian Thomas (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Thomas, Vivian. “Order and Authority in Measure for Measure.” In The Moral Universe of Shakespeare's Problem Plays, pp. 173-209. London: Croom Helm, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Thomas examines 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.]

One of the essential qualities of the stories upon which Shakespeare draws for All's Well and Measure for Measure is that they are fables which set forth a series of events that are to be taken as given. Even when the precise...

(The entire section is 7040 words.)

Mark Taylor (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Taylor, Mark. “Farther Privileges: Conflict and Change in Measure for Measure.Philological Quarterly 73, no. 2 (spring 1994): 169-93.

[In the following essay, Taylor presents a psychoanalytic examination of the major characters in Measure for Measure—the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo.]

At the end of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure the Duke, a man not “much detected for women,” as he said of himself earlier, suddenly proposes marriage to Isabella, a woman not much detected for men. Very little in the play has overtly prepared the reader or spectator for the Duke's expression of romantic interest; nor are there explicit indications...

(The entire section is 9562 words.)

Natasha Korda (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Korda, Natasha. “Isabella's Rule: Singlewomen and the Properties of Poverty in Measure for Measure.” In Shakespeare's Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England, pp. 159-91. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Korda studies the precarious social position of the single woman—variously embodied as Isabella, Marianna, Juliet, and Mistress Overdone—in the patriarchal world of Measure for Measure.]

Measure for Measure, … manifests a profound preoccupation with the place of singlewomen—many of whom had formerly lived in, around, and (in the case of those who were impoverished)...

(The entire section is 6656 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Charles Isherwood (review date 25 June 2001)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Measure for Measure. Variety 383, no. 6 (25 June 2001): 29.

[In the following review of Mary Zimmerman's 2001 production of Measure for Measure at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, Isherwood praises the talented cast, but laments the loss of the play's more disturbing and thought-provoking qualities in this comic interpretation.]

The comedy easily trumps the darkness in Mary Zimmerman's production of Shakespeare's dark comedy Measure for Measure, the first summer entry from the Public Theater at the Delacorte in Central Park. Zimmerman, whose inventive stage adaptations of various literary...

(The entire section is 886 words.)

Michael Billington (review date 5 May 2003)

SOURCE: Billington, Michael. Review of Measure for Measure. Guardian (5 May 2003): 18.

[In the following review, Billington critiques Sean Holmes's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Measure for Measure and finds fault with its overemphasis on the corruption of modern society.]

After its airborne Taming of the Shrew, the Royal Shakespeare Company comes back to earth with this problematic comedy. Sean Holmes's production has pace, energy and a fine Isabella in Emma Fielding; but its moral negativism seems a hangover from the director's recent work on The Roman Actor.

Holmes's boldest stroke is to set the action in...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Celia Baker (review date 27 June 2003)

SOURCE: Baker, Celia. Review of Measure for Measure. Salt Lake Tribune (27 June 2003): D22.

[In the following review of director Liz Huddle's 2003 production of Measure for Measure at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Baker remarks on the easygoing appeal of this conventional comic staging, but notes that the play did not attempt to resolve the problematic questions raised by Shakespeare's drama.]

Duke Vincentio thinks Vienna is becoming too licentious. So, he brings in a strict deputy to clean things up, then disappears for a while, secretly checking on his substitute to see how things are going. What follows is a dark comedy that offers an intriguing...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

Kenneth Tucker (review date summer 2003)

SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. Review of Measure for Measure. Shakespeare Newsletter 53, no. 2 (summer 2003): 43-5.

[In the following review, Tucker finds director Sean Holmes's 2003 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Measure for Measure, set in the dreary, war-torn Vienna of the early mid-twentieth century, a compelling interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most challenging plays.]

Measure for Measure is notoriously one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays to understand, if not indeed to perform. Conflicting critical estimates have competed for dominance. Victorians and some later critics tended to view it as a rank failure, the result possibly...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Robert Hurwitt (review date 11 August 2003)

SOURCE: Hurwitt, Robert. Review of Measure for Measure. San Francisco Chronicle (11 August 2003): D3.

[In the following review of Daniel Fish's 2003 California Shakespeare Theater staging of Measure for Measure, Hurwitt admires the setting, directorial innovations, and excellent performances and claims that the production effectively emphasized the complexities and enduring appeal of the drama.]

The condemned man, bound in duct tape, wears a red-and-white striped hot dog vendor's uniform and his visibly pregnant lover wanders forlornly across the stage singing a haunted “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” A jilted bride, left in the lurch five years...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Harold C. Goddard (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: Goddard, Harold C. “Power in Measure for Measure.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 25-43. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1951, Goddard interprets Measure for Measure as a study in the corrupting effects of power and self-righteousness on character.]

“Would you know a man? Give him power.” History sometimes seems little else than an extended comment on that ancient maxim. Our own day has elucidated it on a colossal scale. Measure for Measure might have been expressly written to drive home its truth....

(The entire section is 7463 words.)

William B. Bache (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Bache, William B. “The Ethic of Love and Duty.” In Measure for Measure as Dialectical Art, pp. 1-12. Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Studies, 1969.

[In the following essay, Bache examines the social and ethical concerns outlined in Measure for Measure and contends that the drama points to self-sacrificing love as a remedy for the excesses of human liberty.]

In Measure for Measure the Shakespeare ethic of love and duty operates on dark, brutal life. Each character begins with a selfish attitude toward the world and the ways of the world, and the Duke in the guise of Friar tries, and is made to try, to do what he can to preserve life so that...

(The entire section is 4864 words.)

Harriet Hawkins (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Hawkins, Harriet. “Sex and Sin in Measure for Measure: Some Open Questions.” In Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, pp. 11-42. Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Hawkins examines the problematic relationship between sex, sin, vice, and virtue depicted in Measure for Measure.]

You are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question. Only the second is obligatory for an artist. Not a single problem is solved in Anna Karenina and Eugène Onegin, but you find these works quite satisfactory … because...

(The entire section is 9505 words.)

Martha Widmayer (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Widmayer, Martha. “‘My Brother Had But Justice’: Isabella's Plea for Angelo in Measure for Measure.Upstart Crow 19 (1999): 62-77.

[In the following essay, Widmayer discusses themes of justice, law, and Christian mercy illustrated by Isabella's petition that Angelo's life be spared in the final scene of Measure for Measure.]

Few speeches have evoked such extensive critical commentary as Isabella's plea for Angelo's life in the final scene of Measure for Measure. Implored by Mariana to “but kneel by me!” (V. i. 445),1 Isabella does far more: she assumes the role of attorney for the defense, arguing that Angelo is not guilty...

(The entire section is 6326 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Brooke, Stopford A. “Measure for Measure.” In Ten More Plays of Shakespeare, pp. 139-164. London: Constable, 1913.

Compares Measure for Measure with other Shakespearean dramas—particularly the tragedies of King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello—and concentrates on the play's moral themes.

Ciliotta-Rubery, Andrea. “An Opposing Worldview: Transient Morality in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Machiavelli's Mandragola.Logos 6, no. 2 (2003): 84-107.

Contrasts Measure for Measure and Machiavelli's Mandragola in terms of their depiction of moral...

(The entire section is 715 words.)