Study Guide

Measure for Measure

by William Shakespeare

Measure for Measure Themes

Themes

Title page of Measure for Measure taken from the First Folio (1623). Published by Gale Cengage

Gender Roles and Sexuality
Most critics see the issues of gender roles and sexuality in the play as a power struggle between the sexes. This battle, many commentators argue, is ultimately won by the male characters. Angelo's attempted rape of Isabella and the Duke's management of the bed-trick have been discussed as methods by which the play's male characters reestablish control over the females whom they regard as disruptive or sexually overpowering. Several critics have remarked that the fear of women depicted in Measure for Measure was typical of the Renaissance period in which Shakespeare wrote and that later plays by other authors were more violent in displaying the general distrust of women.

Commentators have offered varying responses to the marriages that close the play. Some argue that the Duke's orchestrated series of betrothals and weddings function as a way of reasserting male control over females. By contrast, others see the marriages as a method of restoring balance between the sexes.

Several commentators evaluate the role of female chastity in the play. Some have argued that Shakespeare both acknowledges and criticizes a double standard regarding sex outside of wedlock, wherein a woman— who was simultaneously expected to be the guardian of chastity and suspected of being a sexual temptress—was traditionally blamed for leading her lover astray. Critics also suggest that Measure for Measure makes a distinction between the value of the severe, celibate chastity of the novice Isabella and the loving, emotional chastity of the faithful Mariana.

Justice and Mercy
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(The entire section is 696 words.)